Tuesday, August 27, 2013

To Teach is to Change is to Grow

I believe that at its fundamental level, all teaching revolves around the concept of change. Change of the self, of the student, of the act--those are crucial for all types of learning, and through that change, comes growth. Let me explain:

Heh. Apple. Get it?
Teachers are the guardians of transformation. During the most tumultuous time--youth-- teachers are there, for many hours a day, as oftentimes the only adult with the possibility of extended adult influence outside of parents. I don’t think we, as a nation and as a people, realize that invaluable potential for growth, and the importance of our teachers to the future of our children. A good teacher can provide the spark that starts the fulfillment of a student’s goals, aspirations, and desires. A bad one can be equally devastating. And so, when people say that anyone can teach, I say, true, it doesn’t take a particularly special type of individual to stand in front of the room and assume the position of a teacher. But to not only be present, to be alive in and with the room, to inspire the thirst for knowledge in a group of often uninterested, misguided, or apathetic students--that is quintessential to a good teacher. And such a positive influence, responsible for so many future voters, citizens, workers, and creators can work wonders in the long run, even if it is not immediately apparent in the short run. In this way, teachers are the harbinger of change.

And that is what a teacher must embody. A common contemporary issue in education is how our education system can properly prepare the students for the adult world, considering the fact that we often have no clue what this world will look like down the line, or even what it will look like at the end of next week. So, I say to the teachers of the world, and to the administrators, and to the communities and parents, teachers must embrace change. They must be second students of change the same way our students, our children, have been born into it. To remain a stagnant rock in a river means eroding away. It is a mistaken belief that the world is stagnant, and that the students must be shaped, much like putty, to fill the box that has been pre-made for them. To say that teachers must prepare the students for the adult world is ignoring one crucial fact: that, although we are all participants in it, they have the capacity to become the creators of that world; they have the capacity to create their own box, to solve the problems of their world--and each and every one of our students deserves that chance.

All of this may seem overwhelming. What is one teacher, a small cog in a looming system, to do? The answer, unfortunately, is that there are countless struggles, both in and out of the classroom that stand in the way. But that doesn’t mean teachers cannot embrace change now. That doesn’t mean that teachers, as individuals, can’t create lasting impact within these confines. Teachers cannot lose hope, or be worn down; that is imperative. And what does embracing change look like in the contemporary classroom experience? It means allowing students the room to grow in whatever capacity they view as genuinely useful, even if teachers can’t understand the immediate value of it. It means assuming the values that they, as a student body, assume. For example, if digital literacy is a growing part of their world, and our democratized, participatory culture, who are teachers to deny in the classroom that which is essential to the lives of their students?

Students will be stubborn. They, as a whole, have grown weary from the system of public education. They have grown tired of being told what to think, and how their thoughts are unimportant, misguided, or irrelevant. While it is true that not each and every one of a student’s varied desires are worth pursuing in the long run, it is nothing short of a tragedy when a student is convinced that their desires on the whole are without merit. But a simple act, a change of stance, a willingness to embrace the fact that the world is changing and that our students are changing in ways that we sometimes can’t understand, is the first step in a long, arduous, but invaluable journey to becoming a good teacher.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Case Study Interview 1

Student: Nailah (N)
8th Grade Gifted Language Arts

*I chose Nailah because, although I see her reading in class and staying relatively on task, I had not, up until asking her for this interview, ever seen her speak in class.*

E: Hey, thanks for sitting down with me and being OK with me interviewing you. I don't need your social security number or anything too personal, I just wanted to talk to you a little about your reading habits and uh, stuff like that. I notice you read a lot in Mr. Peek's class. What book is that?

N: Uh it's a book called Vampire Kisses 3. It's OK I guess.

E: So what other reading do you do? Like, outside of just class readings?

N: *Long Pause* I really--I mean, uhm, I like Harry Potter. I've read all of those. I like Historical Fiction and Paranormal Romance or Fiction. Fantasy and stuff like that is alright.

E: And what about besides books? Do you like texting with your friends? Or, you know, go on Facebook, Twitter, or thing's like that?

N: I mean, yeah. I go on Facebook and uh, I like texting with my friends and stuff. I don't really like Twitter or anything.

E: Yeah, me neither. It's, like, idk, all the rage apparently.

N: It's weird saying I'm following someone.

E: Just a little creepy. Are you caught up on Bad Boy? **Side note: Assigned reading is Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers**

N: Yeah, I finished that already.

E: You like it?

N: Not really. I mean, it's alright I guess.

E: It's a little different than...what you've said you enjoy reading out of class. It's impressive you finished, though. OK. How about your writing? Do you do any writing outside of class?

N: *Pause* I write short stories. Like, I'll go and uh, in class I'll write down something in my notebook and then go home and write stuff. I like writing poems, and you know, essays and stuff. I don't know. I do them when I have time.

E: That's really impressive. I uh, don't know if it's cool to say this, but I was worried that I'd have to really push you for answers, and you've been awesome. Like, in terms of your reading and writing, it's definitely awesome that you do it outside of school and stuff. I could tell that you enjoyed reading, I just never really hear you speak up much in Mr. Peek's.

N: Yeah, I mean...I don't know. I like writing and reading.

E: That's awesome. It really is. Hey, so thank you again for letting me sit down with you. I'll be getting to know everyone over the year, so thanks for putting yourself out there for this interview so early on.

Digital Literacy in the Age of Slow Computers

It's natural to be afraid of new things.

We want to be assured of things. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that. When I try something in my future classroom, I would love for all of my lessons to be crafted from sound research that took years to compile, but the world moves quickly, and things that mattered to students 20 years ago, sometimes don't now. Things that matter to students now may be irrelevant even quicker than that. The students we teach are an eclectic bunch, ever-changing--constantly finding themselves, losing themselves, and uncovering entirely new personas. Our classrooms need to be fluid, and we need to be fluid. We can't allow ourselves to be left behind by the advent of their interests, their changing world, and their adaptability.

At least, that's what I wanted to write about before my field experience.

Don't get me wrong. I still believe what I wrote up there. I always tell the truth, even if I lie. But I realize that maybe, I need to be a little more cautious not to assume things I don't know about. The statements made above take for granted many things that I now realize may require a little more insight than my blanket advice to embrace change. I am, above all, naive. The concepts in our reading this week are particularly telling. I wrote last about the benefits of technology and digital writing in classrooms. I talked about the democratizing effect of the internet, and how students can not only use the internet as tool, but as an entirely new medium of exchange. For many schools, this is the way to go, and they can be on their way to a brighter, technologically inclined future by the end of next week. For others, it's a little easier said than done.

Admittedly, finding a way to fit in to my field experience has been a challenge. Washington-Wilkes Middle School is in a completely different environment from my own upbringing in New York City public schools. Washington-Wilkes is a middle school and a high school combined into a single building. It is the only school in the entire county, which is a tight knit community where all the teachers know all the mothers know all the administration know everyone but me. The students that make up my class are mostly rural and from financially struggling families. It's the kind of county where paddling is still allowed as an acceptable form of punishment in primary and middle school. No joke. Kind of crazy if you think about the day and age, and what is acceptable in a public school.

My mentor teacher is a man named William Peek, and a very nice person. William is also an authoritarian in the classroom. He is very traditional in his teaching style, rarely using anything but lecture to explain information, and he rules with an iron fist. He threatens to write someone up in every block at least once (except maybe in the gifted course). The kids, admittedly, can be rowdy. They can be troublemakers, and sometimes putting yourself in the position of the premiere authority in the room and not their friend is important to get the message that there is no nonsense. Writing instruction still involves the instruction of the five-paragraph essay, another concept which they will have to throw out once they reach college.

In our reading, it is said that: "Through engaging in multimodal productions, students have the opportunity to adopt new aesthetic notions of visual rhetoric, performance, and embodiment constituting identity construction" (Beach, Thein, Webb, 58). I wholeheartedly agree that it is imperative that the students learn to express themselves an adopt new ways to interpret and create concepts. I agree with a lot of what I've been learning about in our classes and our readings. Call me a bright-eyed and naive youth, but I want to believe in that. I'm just not seeing it. Washington-Wilkes has very little funding for anything that can be used as effective technology teaching tools. The computers that they do have are slow, and scarce. Some of the students themselves may not have access to a lot of those resources at home. While William's 8th grade class is equipped with an ActivBoard (sort of like a SmartBoard, or touch screen/projector combo), it is rarely used for more than just a projector, because the computer monitor at the teacher's desk is not functional.

Students are not allowed to have a phone on campus at all. While I'm not quite gullible enough to believe that this rule is strictly adhered to, it is worth noting that many students do not have one. While other schools in Georgia worry about whether or not computers, phones, tablets, and e-readers are replacing the book, the students here have no choice but to accept the books and teacher-centric lessons as the only form of education they will get.

The availability of digital resources that are necessary to help these students succeed in the real world is shaky at best. And that sort of difference between schools such as Washington-Wilkes and highly-funded schools in more well-to-do areas hinders progress not only for them, but for the education system as a whole. For how can I wholly embrace the implementation of digital literacy education on one hand, while struggling with the reality that many other schools are struggling to get decent computers?

Works Cited:

Beech, Richard, A. Thein, A. Webb. Teaching to Exceed the English Language Arts Common Core Standards. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The World Needs More Digital Literacy (and Togas)

The internet is good for many things: connecting people who want to be connected, connecting people who don't want to be connected, providing the opportunity for people all over the world to laugh collectively at the same video on YouTube, and, most importantly, democratizing our society.

Yes, it happens to do that, too. Let me explain:

Like this, but with an absurdly large number of people,
and presumably fewer smiles.
Think back to the beginning of democracy. In a place known as Athens, Greece and in a time known as Ancient, the idea of direct democracy was beginning to flourish. Humans in the area had set forth a system of government that required every individual (so long as you were not a woman, child, or slave) to meet and vote on the laws proposed by the central rotation body of 500 men. This system made it illegal to not participate in the legislative process that shaped society, even though meetings of all citizens under the model of Direct Democracy must have been a logistical nightmare.

The setup of this system, however, had an interesting effect on the values of the society which created it. Because the idea behind this was to give everyone a voice, oratory skills were among the most highly regarded skills. To be able to stand in front of your fellow citizens and speak your mind in a way that was persuasive was important. However, once the population size increased to the point where convening to vote on every law was just impossibly inconvenient, later democracies would follow the Roman example, and elect representatives to vote on those laws for us. That's how the United States and other democratic republics today are set up, and oratory skills among us commoners, though valuable, are no longer as essential.

So what does this have to do with our readings? What does this have to do with the contemporary American classroom? How does this relate to us, the internet, and how we communicate? I'm just one man! Slow down with your questions, and listen:

I almost miss Xanga.
The Digital Age is changing our society. The internet, through resources such as blogs, wikis, YouTube, comment boards, and social networks, has given everyone a voice. When men were given a physical voice in Ancient Greece, the emphasis on the ability to speak persuasively was incredible. And now, when every man, woman, and child with access to an internet connection and a working keyboard is given a voice online, is it at all surprising to see that Digital literacy is now being seen as an important facet of our English classes? The only surprise for me is how slowly we are to adopt this form of literacy. In our readings, it is written: “Media and digital literacies are rapidly being recognized as more important for language arts teachers to address, given the importance of students joining or our online and digital ‘participatory culture’” (Thein 38). This participatory culture is something that has grown much more rapidly than our classrooms have grown to accommodate it. Digital writing in school for me was never seen as anything more than a tool to get information across. It was not viewed as a medium of exchange that could ever stand up to the literary quality of classic paper and print.

But I think it's high time we embraced the use of digital writing in our classrooms, and I am glad to see more emphasis placed on it. Will digital writing eclipse novels, poetry, and other classic forms of writing? Of course not. But to ignore that the times are changing (and that our students and their interests are changing) is the wrong course to take. The questions now are: Which aspect of digital literature will we want to teach? How will we responsibly guide our students into "good" and "bad" digital writing? What do those terms even mean? Those are questions that can be debated, but I feel as though we must move past the question of whether or not digital writing has a place in our schools. The moral of the story? Grow or die. I think we, as responsible teachers tasked with the duty of preparing our students for the world outside of school, should grow, and allow our students to grow along with us.

Works Cited:

Beech, Richard, A. Thein, A. Webb. Teaching to Exceed the English Language Arts Common Core Standards. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Literacy Narrative (with no Semicolons)

Style over substance. It's a dirty phrase. If writing had seven deadly sins, prioritizing style over substance would be at least three of them. I knew it was wrong, of course. Everyone did. It was drilled over and over through high school essays, reports, portfolios, and the like. What writing needed was purpose. It needed a point, and the longer a writer dragged it through the dirt, the duller it would get.

But I thought I was good at writing. I don't mean the "I'm-a-teenager-and-I'm-good-for-my-age" good, either. The way I wrote with a wanton disregard for anything anyone could consider a purpose,  I must have thought I was glorious. Teachers would always tell the class to avoid so-called "fluff" writing, which was an obstacle to writing anything worth reading, but the reason I thought I was so good was because they never caught me. I went years, a decade, producing grade-A style-over-substance fluff. I had no idea what I was writing about, who I was writing it for, why I was writing it at all. But I wrote. I had a general mastery of the language. I could use semi-colons correctly. I always proofread my work, and I made sure I used words that I heard from men and women much smarter than me. I was a sucker for aesthetics--achieving that was my goal, and as far as I was concerned, it got me through my classes just fine.

It's hard to pinpoint one exact moment when I hit the realization that the sort of writing I was producing didn't make me happy. I was happy to please my teachers with my mastery of language (most of them, after all, were concerned with getting their students to pass the next upcoming state exam). It was mining for information, neural connections, over and over, for the purpose of a letter on a page. But the writing process itself was painful. It was tedious, boring work. My love for writing, which had ignited under the pressure of my voracious reading during my early years, did not die out quickly. Rather, it was crushed, slowly, bit by bit, as if run over by a particularly slow-moving train. Years of schooling wore me down to a finely polished, five-paragraph producing nub of a writer. With my formula, I produced the maximum score on both the AP Language and AP Literature exams. I did decently on my SATs and ACTs. I also missed writing to write.

When I got to college, I started reading again. It had fallen into a lull during my high school years, after years of pretending I didn't love to learn turned me into somewhat of a problem child. *Add-On* It wasn't until I entered my first Creative Writing course at UGA that I was given just the right ratio of structure and freedom to really explore the depths of my own writing in conjunction with reading. The class revolved around weekly prompts that were based on the reading for the week (which usually consisted of one novel or novella per week). Sometimes they were broad, creative, and left a lot of room to roam. Other times they were specific responses to the text. Such prompts could include things such as:
  • Continue a story using the first paragraph of the novel, heading in a completely different direction
  • Complete a story in 20 minutes in a room with no distractions
  • Write poetry which is based on lyrics. Then, remove the lyrics from the poem.
  • Write a story in which you manipulate the order of time and chronology.
...and other such starting points. It was the juxtaposition of these fascinating books with the writing prompts that connected the two in a way I wasn't fully cognizant of. *End*

I started getting into satirical writing. I was dissatisfied with the status quo of my own life and of society. I loved how social commentary could be achieved through the use of storytelling, with stories that draw parallels between our worlds and the worlds of the text. I read Vonnegut's body of work (which I'm still working on finishing now) and I was inspired by his simplistic writing style, and sharp witty dialogue. After reading Mother NightSlaughter-House FiveBreakfast of Champions, and his various short story collections, I read a quote from him which read,

"Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."

Also, as a side note, he happens to look like a cross
between Albert Einstein and Mark Twain
I don't know why that spoke to me so clearly. I had teacher after teacher tell me how being stylistic for aesthetic's sake would only serve to make your writing pretty and empty, but to hear it from someone I admired as a writer was different. Not to say that semi-colons don't have their use, but I knew I would throw them in there just to feel intelligent for knowing how to. They often served no purpose. I looked at my sentences. Many often had little to no purpose. That was why I wasn't happy writing. What did it matter how pretty my words were when they had nothing to offer? Why would my audience want listen to me, when even I didn't want to listen to me? To be honest, I'm still working on being happy with my writing today. To be even more honest, I may never reach that point. But to know that I am trying to reach that goal is enough for me to enjoy writing again.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Jetpacks and Hurricanes

It took me longer than I'd like to admit to choose the name for this blog.
I told myself to choose a simple name, preferably something I liked or enjoyed doing.

I like desks that are tilted towards me at a slight angle for ease-of-use, but that name is rather cumbersome. I like stickers that peel off without leaving sticky residue, but all those names were taken. I like the way helmets make me feel secure. I enjoy learning about things that have no immediate relevance, and imagining scenarios where the knowledge would prove invaluable. I am awed by the raw power of hurricanes.

I like jetpacks and freedom.

God Bless America.

(I was close to choosing Jetpacks and Hurricanes, actually.)
But I also like the simple things, like how a stick of graphite wrapped in a dead cedar tree can inspire much of the same awe.

So, welcome to Wooden Pencils.
Hope it turns out alright.