Sunday, July 27, 2008

Am I Losing My Mind?

Nicholas Carr's recent article in The Atlantic with its scintillating title "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" is making waves through the edublogosphere. Carr's article actually focuses less on Google and more on how online reading has changed the way we interact with literature. Our media has changed our medium. For the most part, reactions to Carr's work have reiterated this thesis. Not many seem to disagree that the Internet has changed the way that we interact with text.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. agrees with Carr's assertion that the omnipresent internet is perhaps rewiring our brains. With so much information filtered into our email inboxes, returned by search engines, coming through our RSS feeds, it is no wonder we are distracted by the sheer volume of information bombarding us the minute we flip open our laptop screen. "So perhaps it is to be expected that we learn to skim and scan information but lose the ability to truly absorb and analyze it," asserts Pitts.

This is not a new idea. Neuroplasticity, the idea that the connections in our brains are not static but can be changed over time by certain stimula, was first discovered in the 1990s and has been written about by many involved with technology. In 2001, when Marc Prensky first coined the term "digital natives" to refer to those who had grown up with technology and whose brains seem to work differently than "digital immigrants" who were forced to learn how to interact with technology later in life, he relied heavily of the research of neuroplasticty to support his claims.

But even before scientists coined the term neuroplasticty, Carr points out, writers have been keenly aware of how media can change the medium. I was struck by Carr's connection to Nietzche. Upon switching to the typewriter, this 19th century philosopher noted that “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Technology changes how we interact with one another, how we interact with the world, so of course, it would change the way that we as readers interact with the written word.

Although I haven’t noticed as much of a change in my reading habits when I have a physical text in hand, I have noticed a change in how I read online. For example, the way that I read the newspaper on Saturday mornings is very different from how I read the news online. Saturday mornings I seek out the feature articles, look for the indepth stories of human interest while I sit sipping my coffee, my fingers turning inky as I flip slowly through each printed page. But when I go to the New York Times online, I seem to follow each link, forgetting sometimes the original article I was reading. I have multiple tabs open on my browser so that I can make a connection at a moment’s notice.

It is this type of reading, the frenzied, madly clicking, quickly connecting, stream of conciousness type of reading that most bloggers seem to be reacting to. However, I believe the following idea from Carr's article has the most impact for educators:
In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed.

Does the web provide us with so many easy to find answers that we are losing our ability to problem solve, our ability to think critically? Carlo Scannella over at extensions also seems to ask this question when he writes, "Can we really spell all that well anymore, when our spell-checkers do it for us? Can we write in cursive, when we now type our expressions? Can we continue to remember, when wikipedia does it for us?" As readers, are we more concerned about getting what we need from a text and less about the message? Is reading about answers instead of questions? And if this is the case, what does this mean for teachers of reading? Do we embrace this change or challenge it?

I do not disagree that the internet has changed the way we read. The web, much like the typewriter did for Nietzche, has definitely changed the "forming of our thoughts." As an English teacher, I wonder how I will need to change the way I teach reading.

Monday, July 21, 2008

It's All In the Approach

I keep running into Marc Prensky. Not literally, of course, but filed away are various photocopies of his articles passed my way by well intentioned administrators during staff meetings. I first encountered his writing this past school year when some of his work was included as part of an online course I participated in. Similar to my initial impressions following my reading of his article "Engage Me or Enrage Me" in the September/October 2005 edition of Educause, his recent article "Young Minds, Fast Times: The 21st Century Digital Learner" left me with a number of concerns and lingering frustrations. I'm struggling with some of his arguments for why teachers should use technology in their classrooms. While I agree that technology must have a role in our curriculum, I don't think that technology is the answer to all the problems of student engagement.

I don't think that the goal of educators is to entertain our students. While I agree that in order to succeed, we must engage our students, get them to buy into what we are teaching, and take ownership of it, I don't think that is what Mr. Prensky is arguing. His articles seem to argue that technology is the simple solution for getting students to engage in the classroom setting. This makes sense given that his livelihood depends on us accepting this idea. However, I think some of his proposals for change are a bit short-sighted. Technology is not the magic bullet for student engagement, and it is certainly not the only tool that educators have at their disposal for encouraging critical thinking and problem-solving in students.

Additionally, his over generalizations and patronizing tone do little to forward what might be a number of very important suggestions - namely, that educators need to involve students in the learning process rather than dictate knowledge to them. While I wholeheartedly agree with this proposal, comments like "It is a measure of the malaise of our educational system that these old folk -- smart and experienced as they may be -- think they can, by themselves and without the input of the people they're trying to teach, design the future of education," do little to help change the minds of educators using what are now labeled as more traditional teaching methods. Instead, his arguments alienate the very voices that need his support for change. It is ironic that he touts himself as someone students can connect with "...because I communicate somehow to the kids that I truly respect their opinions," but he does not extend this courtesy to his fellow educators.

It is the goal of educators to prepare students to be active, responsible, reflective citizens. Technology most certainly can help us meet that goal. We should and must use technology to help students integrate fully into the modern world, but technology is not the easy answer to the question of how do we engage students. Instead, I agree more with Will Richardson's suggestion that "By inviting students to become active participants in the design of their own learning, we teach them how to be active participants in their lives and future careers." Technology certainly aids in the this endeavor, but it is not the only way we encourage students to active participants in their learning.

Is This Going to be on the Test?

I'm currently sitting in my first PA Writing and Literature Project class of the summer. In our conversations today about reading and writing in digital spaces, we discussed the conflict that arises between what we are mandated to teach in accordance with high-stakes, stardardized, state tests and the skills students will need to live and work in the 21st century. To jump start our conversation, our teacher, Diane Barrie, shared this music video by Tom Chapin. Enjoy!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wasting Time

I find my personal life blurring into my professional activities recently. Just before students left the classroom for their summer adventures, I found myself sitting through yet another meeting which ultimately devolved into complaints about how often teachers and administrators in my building find students wasting time on the web during class. Our high school is in the midst of reviewing which web applications to allow and which to ban students from accessing through our school network, and of course the one site that nearly drips with venom from the lips of most educators these days is Facebook. However, I’ve seen how social networking sites like Facebook can be beneficial inside the classroom.

After listening to many of my colleagues admonish students for wasting valuable classroom time goofing around on Facebook, someone in our meeting pointed out that I had used Facebook with a recent student project. Students in my tenth grade English class had been given the task of finding a way to present their research on an issue currently facing a non-western culture to an audience outside the walls of our classroom. Some of the students adapted their research and presented their work to middle school students. Others wrote letters to senators and newspaper editors. A number of students used Facebook.

Students asked if they might use the Group application in Facebook to form awareness groups and recruit members to join from both inside and outside of our school community. Students posted information, links, videos, discussion questions, and more using the application. Some groups experienced phenomenal results. A small group of girls put together a page about the challenges faced by girls and women in Afghanistan. Their Facebook group is still going strong with just over 250 members from all over the world – the United States, Singapore, Ireland, India, and even Afghanistan. Another group started a page on the challenges faced by former child soldiers in Liberia. Their group started some wonderful discussion threads that pulled in people from Australia, France, Minnesota, and India. Students rushed to our laptops each day to excitedly check and respond to whoever had posted to their discussion section. The students were truly engaged with an audience outside of our classroom based on their research endeavors. And because I too had a Facebook account, I could monitor what the students posted, and I could respond to their discussions.

However, this is also where my professional persona started to overlap with my life outside of school. Technology has a way of bridging gaps in unexpected ways. I originally started my Facebook account so that I could connect with students. My persona, Teacher Ward, was “friended” by my students. They could read my profile and see which groups I had recently posted to. Students would email me and post questions to my “Wall.” This worked well, until my friends outside of school also found me on Facebook. Suddenly, I found myself having to explain my teaching persona to my non-teaching friends. My students were using Facebook to connect with audiences halfway around the world while my former high school classmates were also trying to reconnect with me. It was an uncomfortable mix. Ultimately, I found I needed to “unfriend” my students in order to separate my personal life from my professional one, but I was still able to join and monitor my students’ groups without them being able to similarly monitor me.

It has been interesting to see how using social networking sites like Facebook and Nings inside the classroom have changed how I connect with others outside the classroom. Not only were my students connecting with others outside of their immediate community, but so was I. Using Facebook gave my students an opportunity to share their interests and research and connect with others. Ultimately, it has also done the same for me. Together we have bridged various cultural and perhaps even a generational divides. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t strike me as a waste of time.