Monday, May 31, 2010

Motivating journalism students

Do I have apathetic students? Sure.
But do I also have motivated (or willing to be motivated) students? Yes.

I motivate my journalism students by reminding them of their power and obligation as knights of the keyboard. I let them know that they will sink or swim on their own merits. I do my best not to edit their work for grammar and typos. As staff writers and editors, it is their responsibility to catch these things. Will I advise them on content and organization and leads and quotes and meaning and subjectivity and prominence and newsworthiness? Of course. But I refuse (despite strong inner-yearnings to do the opposite) to be a copy editor.

For some of our most important stories, I will read them over and offer general feedback. Rarely do I make specific suggestions. Instead, I'll say that sentence needs to be cleaned up, is awkward, rambles, etc. I'll say the lead doesn't do the story justice. I'll alert them to problematic areas. But they need to fix them. It is their paper.

Our school's publication has been around for 90 years. I let the students know that they are torchbearers, keeping alight a flame kindled long before we walked the earth. Once kids buy in and put forth effort, they will win awards. And suddenly they've created an award-winning paper. And they feel good about that. And they will be intrinsically motivated to continue that tradition and keep the flame burning for their successors.

Student journalists preserve history. What they do matters, and has repercussions far beyond what most of them can currently perceive. As teachers and advisors with the benefit of greater vision, we must remind them that their work will be felt across time, and we must challenge them to live up to the weighty obligations they took on when they signed up to be part of the school newspaper.

Image from

Monday, May 24, 2010

Technology's Role in 21st Century Education

The teenager clad in sweatpants and Ugg boots shuffles in her seat, disinterested, as her teacher drones on about the major themes found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The girl, a senior, started counting down the days to graduation back in December. It’s now March. She only has to endure this state-sponsored "education" for two more months before she’s finally free to move forward with life on her own terms.

Suddenly, she feels a small vibration from the right inside pocket of her sweats. It’s her iPhone signaling that she’s just received a text message. She glances up at the teacher to be sure she’s in the clear, then carefully cradles the phone in the palm of her hand as she begins to read the message from a friend about a road trip they’re taking this weekend to visit her older brother at college. As the girl looks up, she’s startled by the authoritative stance of her teacher staring over her shoulder.

“Jessica, put that phone away now, or it’s mine,” says Mr. Brown. Because Jessica attends Antiquated High School, she is forced to comply with her school’s prohibitive electronic device policy. However, if she attended the forward-thinking Health Sciences High and Middle College high school, she would likely be using her iPhone for academic purposes thanks to a “courtesy policy” that governs the use of electronic devices during school hours (Fisher & Frey, 2008).

Rather than using her phone to solidify weekend plans, Jessica could have been listening to a Podcast on how superstition affects human behavior, or browsing a scholarly text on how blind ambition leads to one’s downfall, another theme prevalent in Macbeth.

Jessica could have been posting a discussion question to her class blog, or using Twitter to respond to a question her teacher posed regarding Macbeth’s most loathsome character. Instead, she’s half-listening to her teacher’s lecture, her body in the classroom, her mind already assembling her outfit for Friday night.

It’s not that Jessica’s ditsy or genuinely disinterested. Her GPA puts her in the top quarter of her class, she regularly does her homework, and she’s generally polite and courteous to her classmates and teachers. Unfortunately for her, Antiquated High School – no different than the majority of American high schools – is failing at its three essential functions, which, according to school technology leader Scott McLeod, are to develop students who are socially functional, economically productive, and able to master the dominate information landscape of their time.

Jessica’s classroom is aligned in rigid rows where students sit isolated, tasked with individual desk work that requires little collaboration or use of resources beyond their text and the teacher’s lecture notes. In this class, Jessica isn’t able to use the latest Web 2.0 tools because her teacher doesn’t know much about technology and has little desire or incentive to learn. And even if he did, her school’s Internet filter blocks blogs, wikis, Ning, Twitter, Facebook, and other social, academic, and compositional Internet resources.

Because Jessica is able to memorize information, she does well on quizzes and tests. Because she sufficiently models her teacher’s writing exemplars (most of which are provided by the state department of education) she scores above-average on her essays. Jessica’s high grades have given her an inflated sense of self as a student. What Jessica lacks is an independent and curious intellect. Rather than break new ground and take chances, Jessica plays it safe while keeping risk-taking at a minimum.

Heidi Jacobs, author of Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, would argue this problem is not entirely Jessica’s fault.

Schools tend to teach, assess, and reward convergent thinking and the acquisition of content with a limited range of acceptable answers. Life in the real world, however, demands multiple ways to do something well. A fundamental shift is required from valuing right answers as the purpose for learning, to knowing how to behave when we don’t know the answers – knowing what to do when confronted with those paradoxical, dichotomous, enigmatic, confusing, ambiguous, discrepant, and sometimes overwhelming situations that plague our lives (Jacobs, 223).

This lack of ingenuity and creativity will hurt Jessica’s chances of employment in the long run. Because she hasn’t learned to tap the power of the Internet for research, self-publishing, or networking, she’s already miles behind the students at Forward Thinking School District who have been cultivating positive electronic personas since elementary school.

Even if Jessica is able to land a good internship during college, she is going to require extensive training before she’s well-versed in the electronic networking and publishing software used by her company. Rather than coming into this new work environment as a leader and a source of innovation, Jessica is seen as unprepared and burdensome.

Some say schools are responsible for preparing students for the “real world.” Others take this a step further and say school should be the real world. Antiquated High School and others like it are stuck in the past, preparing students for jobs that no longer exist. Their true responsibility is to prepare students for jobs that have yet to be created, and they are failing, miserably. It is time for today’s educators to get serious about giving students a malleable set of skills they can apply five, ten, and even twenty years down the road.

This means that students can work effectively in groups. It means they can analyze, criticize, create, deconstruct, and synthesize. It means they know how to use technology for serious, academic research and investigation, not just social networking and gaming. Students will not learn these skills unless, we, their teachers, undergo a focused, constructive, cumulative initiative that challenges the current educational paradigm and reshapes it for the 21st century.

This cannot happen unless the federal and state governments renew their commitment to education, moving away from drill-and-kill instruction and toward constructivist, open classroom environments where teachers facilitate learning though technology, collaboration, and exploration. The days of the teacher as the “sage on the stage” are gone. Our new roles are to serve as guides through an increasingly complex and ever changing digital maze of information.

We can’t lead our charges into this new horizon with the tools of the previous century. To remain relevant, school districts must acquire the digital hardware of today’s workplace, train teachers on its use in the classroom, and then give students the freedom to explore, experiment, and harness their skills as navigators, evaluators, and creators of tomorrow’s world.

Bonk, C. (2009). The world is open: How Web technology is revolutionizing education (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Frey, H. & Fisher, D. (2008). Doing the right thing with technology. English Journal. 38-42. Retrieved from

Jacobs, H. (2010). Curriculum 21: Essential education for a changing world. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Herrington, A., Hodgson, K., & Moran, C (Eds.). (2009). Teaching the new writing: Technology, change, and assessment. Berkeley, CA: Teachers College Press.

McLeod, Scott. (2010, March 16). Notes from India – My TEDx talk [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Metiri Group. Multimodal Learning Through Media: What the Research Says. (2008). Retrieved from

National Council of Teachers of English. Writing in the 21st century. (2009). Retrieved from

State Educational Technology Directors Association. Maximizing the impact: The pivotal role of technology in a 21st century education system. (2007). Retrieved from

Seniors 'Articulate' on final day

Today was my seniors' last regular day of class. In both my World Literature and Journalism classes, we concluded the year with a game of Articulate. Featuring elements of both Charades and Taboo, the game requires players to describe to their team members a variety of people, places, things, and actions within a 30-second turn.

It's exciting, fast-paced, and rewards students for being knowledgeable and - you guessed it - articulate. When students get on a roll and they're in-sync with each other, teams can guess five or six items within the half-minute window. When students get stumped or spend too much time on one particular card (they're allowed to skip once), one or sometimes no correct answers are given.

I enjoy playing it with my students because it gives those who have different strengths and areas of expertise a chance to put their skills to use. For example, when the "nature" card comes up, students who are good in biology and the sciences are the best describers, as they're able to quickly break down the item on their card for their group to guess. The same goes for the "geography" and "people" cards. Students with specific knowledge can help their teams win, their smarts rewarding them with instant social capital.

The game is also great for team building. In my Journalism class, we played seniors vs. underclassmen, and the seniors narrowly scraped out a victory, despite having almost twice as many players. The members of the class of 2010 left the game with their dignities in tact, while the sophomores and juniors had every right to feel proud as they held their own.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Teaching the New Writing

Teaching the New Writing is a compendium of teacher anecdotes, lessons, and insights on what writing instruction looks like in the 21st century classroom. Edited by UMass professors Anne Herrington and Charles Moran, and sixth grade teacher and blogger Kevin Hodgson, the book offers educators of all levels an opportunity to learn from colleagues as they go about bringing 21st century skills into their classroom.

Included in the book is an index of technology terms ranging from multimodal composition and vodcasting to digital storytelling and weblogs. Seventeen teachers representing a full range of grades and classes across the education landscape contributed to the book, which features a variety of student work to go alongside lesson plan notes and reflections.

The book is divided into three sections. The first spans the elementary and middle school years, the second focuses on high school, and the final chapter extends to college. Given this range, Teaching the New Writing is apt for a variety of audiences, including classroom teachers, parents, administrators, curriculum coordinators, and pre-service teachers looking to gain a holistic glimpse of writing instruction in the 21st century.

Some of the choice chapters include Chapter 4: Digital Picture Books – From Flatland to Multimedia, Chapter 5: Be a Blogger – Social Networking in the Classroom, Chapter 6: Poetry Fusion – Integrating Video, Verbal, and Audio Texts, and Chapter 12: Technology, Change, and Assessment – What We Have Learned.

One of the core concepts of the book is that we need to rethink our definition of writing. In fact, we should replace it with the word “composing,” and consider composition as the creation of “texts that might include words, images, sounds, and hyperlinks that connect any and all of the above to other words, images, sounds, and hyperlinks” (199).

As far as integrating technology into the classroom, the authors recommend patience, as it will take time for new technologies to intertwine themselves with curriculum. The authors warn that business-as-usual professional development will not work.

“The usual kind of staff development – the one-shot training workshop mandated by the principal or superintendent – will not produce the desired effect, or perhaps any effect at all” (203). Until that model changes, teachers will bring technology into their classrooms gradually, over time, and at different rates. Membership in professional organizations focused on technology integration and attendance at regional and national workshops will be vital to providing teachers with the training necessary to bring their pedagogy to the 21st century.