Saturday, November 7, 2015

Teaching Digital Natives

I’m glad I grew up when I did.

I was an Iowa farm boy during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, although the violence and unrest seemed to be distant problems for other people, the newspapers were filled with accounts of bloodshed, police dogs and civil disobedience. Israel fought for national survival and the war in

Vietnam raged on as protests against continued US involvement enveloped most college campuses – Cornell College was even the site of anti-war protests.

The pre-digital world seemed to come to a stop when noteworthy events occurred. Church bells rang and factory whistles blew when Doctor Jonas Salk finally cured polio. Rockets launched from Cape Canaveral were a source of national pride and a giant leap for mankind, a cause for widespread celebration.
Many of our toys mirrored the technological marvels of the era rather than the fantasy-heavy (but non-sexist, non-racist, and inclusive) choices of today - and none of them had a reset button!

There were late-breaking stories that interrupted family staples of Flipper and Mr. Ed. News icons like Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley disrupted our quiet, bucolic life with reports of a President being assassinated in Dallas, a march in Selma that turned into a bloody rout for peaceful protestors by overzealous and bigoted police and Kent State, where overwhelmed and undertrained National Guard soldiers fired on demonstrators.

A news junkie from a very young age, I clipped important news articles from the paper and watched the daily news almost every day at 5:00 PM and again at 10:00 (if my parents allowed it). I began with a child’s understanding of terrorism as it began taking center stage in the world theater - an understanding that spurred further study throughout my adulthood. I knew the difference between the ANC and NVA and I knew where in the world they were focused. I wasn’t a very good student academically, but when given a chance, my passions erupted. The turbulent times we lived in demanded that you paid attention instead of remaining complacent - regardless of your political leanings.

Kids today aren’t so lucky. Despite the ongoing war on terror and widespread upheavals they don’t/can’t engage with the reality of life. They are consumed by the Kardashians and American Pickers. Apartheid and Nelson Mandela are ancient history; Vietnam is as relevant to them as the Peloponnesian War. Few teenagers have even a prosaic understanding of what civil disobedience is and how effective it can be to change unjust laws – Oh; they can regurgitate the story about Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, but only vaguely. The scary part is that they don’t really care! They would much rather play on their cell phones than actually examine a historical event even for a grade.

24/7 infotainment substitutes for real news and inundates viewers with repetitive images and hyperbole to the point that viewers frequently can't separate fact for opinion. Online "news" isn't much better with everyone trying to be the first with the most titillating headline, accuracy be damned.

From my observations, despite being “Digital Natives,” few of students know enough about computers or the Internet to get beyond Google to find something of substance. They’d much rather dawdle on Pandora or YouTube than actually do an assignment. They’d much rather tweet than read (fill in the blank).

When I first started substituting, when I still held onto the belief that I might actually get a job as a real teacher I built a very impressive “Sub box,” it contained alternate lesson plans separated by developmental level and subject matter, “sponge” activities used to help fill up the inevitable time between end of the lesson and the end of the period as well as the usual supplies that I would need during the school day – I quit carrying that years ago. I discovered much to my chagrin, that students, especially high school students, were not interested in ANYTHING that did not guarantee points for their GPA. Since I couldn’t guarantee their regular teacher would give them points – and to avoid giving the regular teacher extra work, I quit carrying them and began following the regular teacher’s suggestion of letting students talk during any extra time. Sigh.

Once, I was filling in for a social studies teacher at a 4A high school, as I was giving the assignment, a flurry of hands shot up when I got to the part about when the work was due. Every one of the questions was about getting an extension! They hadn’t even started working on the assignment and they wanted an allowance to turn the project in late!

Another troubling trend is that many students go out of their way to defy authority at every turn, but rarely when it is of importance. Although there are occasional reports of students actually taking a stand for a worthwhile cause – even some I might not agree with, it is the exception rather than the rule. They don’t like being told to sit down, in a chair, facing the front, in their chair, awake, off the phone, close the computer, stop talking, no you may not go to the bathroom, sit down, put your phone away, listen up, open your textbook, etc. Like casting pearls before swine it's usually wasted effort. But, as I’ve said on more than one occasion, “It’s your grade not mine.”

But grading seems to have become a thing of the past, too. Teachers will even “cook the books” in order to maintain a better than par average of passing students. Extra credit seems to be the order of the day, something to drag that dismal F up to a D- and the mediocre C up to a B+. I get it. It’s self-preservation, but it’s giving up because Little Johnny’s parental unit will give you no rest until you treat him “properly.” Parents don’t seem to give a shit whether their offspring can actually enter the workforce someday, only that their name appears on the honor roll and that they get to participate in the myriad of other activities that keep them out of their parents’ hair – that is IF there are two parents! Usually, it seems, it’s a single parent trying to get by and the fewer problems they have to deal with the better. We had televisions, they have the internet.

 Smart phones, computers and the internet are technological marvels that we could only dream of and by all rights should be a breakthrough in education, however, they tend more distracting than beneficial. Disinterested, disengaged, lethargic, dull, lifeless are words that I use more often than interested, engaged, energized, alert, involved when asked about many students. A good first step might be to ban cell phones from the classroom, limit online use to only what is needed and monitor their access. You might even require at least a few hard copy references for research projects.

Then there is the whole sexting thing!
Much like our generation wanted our MTV, “kids today” want instant (and continual) gratification in the form of digital entertainment. I’m writing this rant after two very distressing and depressing days “teaching” at the same 4A high school previously mentioned. I was covering for a different teacher who had three preps (taught three different classes) and I got to see a fairly broad cross section of the student body and what I saw didn’t impress me very much. The vast majority of students were obsessing on their cell phones and a large percentage of them had ear buds either continually stuck in their skulls or ready to be inserted at a moment’s notice. I’ve had to tell students that they could not listen to music while they take a test, nor could they have their phone on their desk while testing.

I’m sure some of you reading this blog are wondering “so what?” and what's the big deal? It’s troubling on many different levels, at its most basic, if students have their face buried in their phone or other device, they aren’t likely paying attention to instructions and invariably will have to have the instructions repeated to them again, and again. Multiply that times the number of students in a classroom you can quickly see how time consuming that would be. Once again, I’ll toss this education obstacle at the feet of its biggest sponsor – the parent(s). Even levelheaded and cogent adults seem to turn a blind eye to the problems they unwittingly condone with their insistence that they have instant contact with their progeny. Many parents don’t think twice about texting or phoning their little darlings during class to pass on even the most mundane of messages – messages that certainly could be delivered by the front office during passing time.

Parents and guardians can help their children by not demanding instant communication, reminding them of priorities and that extra effort on their part will benefit them farther on down the line. Although you should make sure they know they are important and they do have rights, their importance and rights to not usurp their obligation to not disrupt the classroom, get an education and to allow other students to get their education too. 

However, occasionally, and just often enough to refresh my desire to teach, I will have a student – or two become engaged, ask probing questions, take notes and generally pay attention. Until something better comes along, I’ll keep at it and hope for the best. I will keep up my end of the bargain but will you? Will they?

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