“Global Uniformity”

Prophetic words from 1995:

“I think cyberspace means the end of our species….Because it means the end of innovation….This idea that the whole world is wired together is mass death.

“Every biologist knows that small groups in isolation evolve fastest. You put a thousand birds on an ocean island and they’ll evolve very fast. You put ten thousand on a big continent, and their evolution slows down. Now, for our own species, evolution occurs mostly through our behavior. We innovate new behavior to adapt. And everybody on earth knows that innovation only occurs in small groups.

“Put three people on a committee and they may get something done. Ten people, and it gets harder. Thirty people, and nothing happens. Thirty million, it becomes impossible. That’s the effect of mass media—it keeps anything from happening. Mass media swamps diversity. It makes every place the same.

“Bangkok or Tokyo or London: there’s a McDonald’s on one corner, a Benetton on another, a Gap across the street. Regional differences vanish. All differences vanish. In a mass-media world, there’s less of everything except the top ten books, records, movies, ideas. People worry about losing species diversity in the rain forest. But what about intellectual diversity—our most necessary resource? That’s disappearing faster than trees.

“But we haven’t figured that out, so now we’re planning to put five billion people together in cyberspace. And it’ll freeze the entire species. Everything will stop dead in its tracks. Everyone will think the same thing at the same time. Global uniformity.”

–Michael Crichton, The Lost World

Me Quoted On Writing

A couple of months ago, a student at my school came in and asked my opinions about student writing.  I thought she was just writing for the school newspaper, but a couple of weeks ago her story ran in the local paper, the Las Vegas Review Journal.  It’s quite good.  She got some good material from a couple of other teachers, and put it together very well.  Alas, she spelled my name wrong, though.  Here’s my contribution:

However, technology cannot be blamed entirely for the decrease in writing quality over the past 20 years.

Jamie Houston, an English teacher at Las Vegas Academy, argued that technology does not affect composition as much as it de-emphasizes sustained focus and this shift in emphasis is part of society’s penchant to prefer visualization to the written word.

“School has always been like going to the gym because you do things that are repetitive, simple and uncreative, but not remotely realistic,” Houston said. “You are never going to do a pushup in the real world. You do pushups because they develop real-world muscles.”

“No one is ever going to put a gun to your head and say, ‘Quick, what’s a gerund?’ School develops thinking and communicating for the untold realms of the real world and for new technologies and innovations that haven’t even been invented yet.”

 

Further On Entertainment Technology Versus Literacy

I can’t get out of my mind how glibly so many among us brush off the loss of literacy as we become more plugged in as just another in a series of history’s trade offs when new technology arises.  We lost a lot of memory when books became popular, goes one mantra. 

But here’s why that analogy doesn’t work—the “loss of memory” was a tradeoff for the higher literacy that was then available.  Books had always been around, but only within the last several hundred years have they—and literacy—become common, so it wasn’t an introduction of a new ability, but rather a spreading of a resource that had been restricted before.

Moreover, the skill sets mentioned here are not equivalent.  We may have traded some memory for literacy, but the fundamental, underlying skills of the mind—deep, focused thought; concentration; engagement with language—was always there. 

Only now, with electronic entertainment, has that changed.  We are losing those basic skills and trading them for…what?  My students, when we talk about this, are quick to say that the new skill set is computer skills.   Really?  Relatively few people are skilled at designing, programming, or repairing computers.  The vast majority of users are merely playing games. 

The assumption which has successfully underpinned all education for thousands of years is that the skills we practice in school are transferable to infinite activities in the real world.  We even teach the way we do with a faith that these skills will prepare students for the unknown, unexpected innovations of the future–a faith that has always been rewarded. 

But what is the transference value of computer skills?  What basic cognitive functions do games and applications stimulate that will ready children for a wide variety—including those of a currently unknowable nature—of skills for the future?  Other than stronger thumbs, I can’t think of any.  Certainly no major brain function is trained by computers nearly as well as by traditional learning and books.

We’re trading an egalitarian, literate culture for an elitist, technological culture.

The “it’s just another change and we’ll adapt” mantra is a flaky one at best, as this change has no precedent.  We’re exploring a dark, mysterious land, and we must proceed with far more caution, or we might just end up blindly hitting a wall or going over a cliff.

You Are Not a Gadget…Or A Passive, Vacuous Techno-Consumer

“It has become appalingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”     –Albert Einstein

Einstein was mostly talking about the bomb, and how we don’t have the maturity to handle such a powerful weapon wisely.  His thought applies equally well to that other insidious invention of the last century, electronic entertainment.

I was thinking of this again this week as I read a brief new essay at City Journal, Adam Thierer’s even-handed, thoughtful review of the new book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier.  Lanier writes persuasively, Thierer agrees, about the need for caution and analysis in our application of online technology, but he also singles out some of Lanier’s major themes and disagrees with them.  In this, Thierer’s review is faulty: when he tries to rebut Lanier’s points, he falls into a trap of contrarian clichés, asserting blindly that Lanier is wrong:

Indeed, Lanier and other Internet critics—including Neil Postman (Technopoly), Lee Siegel (Against the Machine), and Mark Helprin (Digital Barbarism)—are guilty of a form of hyper-nostalgia about some mythical “good ol’ days” when all was supposedly much better. But despite the hand-wringing and occasional “techno-panics,” we somehow evolve and endure—and our culture grows more diverse, too.

It’s interesting that Thierer uses Neil Postman as one of his references as a promulgator of the “mythical ‘good ol’ days,'” when much of Postman’s most popular book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, establishes quite firmly that general literacy and attention spans used to be significantly greater than they have been since the introduction of mental-labor saving devices during the 20th century.  Thierer commits his greatest fallacy, though, when he asserts that “despite the hand-wringing and occasional ‘techno-panics,’ we somehow evolve and endure—and our culture grows more diverse, too.” 

This is patently false. 

Thierer seems to base his claim in the fact that technology critics predict dire consequences, yet we’re all still here, therefore the prophets of doom are wrong.  But nobody ever said that turning over more and more of our intellectual autonomy to electronic toys would completely destroy us (except, of course, for The Terminator, The Matrix, and pretty much everything Michael Crichton wrote), but that it would result in a world increasingly sterile in its mental acumen.  Is there any way to deny that that’s exactly what’s happened?

This week I watched an episode of PBS’s Frontline, from just last month, called “Digital Nation.”  It’s a stunning documentary about how the minds and lives of young people have been fundamentally changed by their sudden and total immersion in an electronic entertainment technology climate.  Continue reading

50 Things New Teachers Need To Know

[Update: Please be sure to also check out 50 MORE Things New Teachers Need To Know.]

 

Now that August is here, I’m thinking about the imminent start of the new school year.  For years I’ve watched new teachers start their first year with no clue about how to manage all that gets thrown at them, and I’ve wanted to have something to give them, samizdat style, that lets them in on what really matters, what really works, and what they should studiously ignore.  This list represents a first draft effort at some of those ideas.

Minor disclaimer: I’m a high school English teacher in Las Vegas.  Therefore, my advice is specifically shaped by that background.  To the degree that your experience differs from mine, take these suggestions with a grain of salt.  For instance, a new third grade teacher in Vermont may not find this very helpful at all.  Still, there should be a few ideas in here that anybody could adapt to their use.

 

  1. Sit your desk in the front of the room, not the back: the thinking that students will act more maturely if they don’t know if you’re looking at them is wrong–they couldn’t care less.  Also, make sure there is enough room by the back wall for you to walk around behind them if you need to.  Letting students sit up against the back wall, with no other access than from coming down an aisle, is asking for trouble.  “Creative” seating arrangements, except in rare circumstances like class discussions and debates, don’t work: just arrange them in ranks and files. 
  2. As the year starts, you’ll be overwhelmed by the paperwork and routines your administrators demand.  Ask a couple of people who have been at your campus for a while what’s really important to them: most of that rigmarole is just your administrators doing what their bosses told them to do; they don’t care about it any more than you do.  Veterans at your school can tell you what you can safely ignore.  You have enough to worry about without jumping through hoops for the office.
  3. Kids will complain all the time, about everything, and there’s not much you can do about it.  Learn to screen out the groans, the whining, the muttered complaints of “boring” and “sucks.”  Don’t take it personally, because they don’t mean it personally.  They’ve been trained by the media and their hormones to automatically hate everything at school.  Just go ahead with your lesson anyway.  They’ll be fine.
  4. Every time you get a note or an email from a parent thanking you–or saying anything positive at all–print it out and save it in a file where you keep things like your teaching license, contract, and resume.  When somebody complains to your supervisor about how you do your job–which, if you’re doing it right, they will–providing copies of such recommendations might come in handy.
  5. All “staff development” and “teacher in service” days exist to promote fads.  If you get to attend a really useful one every two years or so, count yourself lucky.  You might have to go through the motions of adopting some gimmick presented at one of these meetings, but don’t worry–everybody will forget about it soon enough and go back to normal.  Don’t feel bad about skipping some of these if you can get away with it so you can do something actually productive: planning rigorous lessons and editing papers.
  6. I say “editing papers” because it’s more constructive than “grading papers.”  Written assignments should be graded like this: Read through them and mark the first five grammatical/mechanical errors.  Grade the paper based on that much: the style, voice, organization, and, of course, how far you got in the paper before you found five errors.  If five errors appeared within the first half page, make them do it over before you give it a grade. 
  7. Resist the urge to try to edit every error in every paper: there just aren’t enough hours in the day.  For this reason, short assignments are better than long ones, most of the time.  They need drilling, not marathons. 
  8. As much as possible, provide written directions for your assignments to students.  Oral directions alone are worthless, and just putting them on the board isn’t much better.  Students today seem to work best when they have individual copies of instructions, especially if they can keep them.  Also, you’ll be surprised by how many students will understand directions better if you simply explain them directly to them, one on one.  Even if you only repeat exactly what you just said to the whole class, some kids will “get it” better. 
  9. No matter what you teach, read out loud to your class.  A lot.  Most students these days have so little positive experience with reading, and so little ability to realistically “hear” a story in their heads as they read, that this training is truly essential, at any age.  Even for teenagers, move around and use dramatic or silly voices as you read; again, such exaggeration models the kind of active screening of written words that they probably lack.  Your poorest readers will want to watch you instead of reading along.  I used to be a stickler about making them look at the pages of their book, but I’ve since come to think that this is counterproductive for them.
  10. PC Myth #1: “Don’t worry about the smart kids.  They’ll take care of themselves.”  If I had a nickel for every time I heard this lie in college, I’d be able to supplement my income enough now to live like my friends in real estate did a few years ago.  The problem with this line, and a lot of other popular thinking like it, is that so many teachers subscribe to it now that the smart kids have almost nobody left rooting for them.  Their intelligence often gets wasted in our schools, with so few of us willing to challenge and expand it.  Please, do not ignore the smartest kids (even though they may be among your most annoying students). 
  11. The last five minutes of every class should look like this: a quick review of that day’s content (either by calling on a few kids to answer simple questions about what was done that day, or quick written answers done on scratch paper and handed directly to you as they leave), a reminder about that day’s homework (you should also check at the door that they have this written down somewhere, preferably with a time set aside to work on it), and have them help you pick up the room by checking around their own areas for any garbage or materials that need to be put away.  When the bell rings, make a show of inspecting the room, then stand at the door and check their review work (if applicable) and homework reminders as they leave.  If it’s not satisfactory, send them back in to do it correctly.  They’ll learn quickly enough.
  12. “Inspirational” posters are worthless.  Decorate your room with some artwork and some things that reflect your professional personality, but mostly with excellent student work. 
  13. Make lots of referrals to counselors.  Best case scenario: students get useful advice.  Worst case: you can document an intervention that covers your liability if they get in real trouble.
  14. If a student submits work that is illegible, incomplete, or that didn’t follow directions, don’t grade it.  Return it to the student and tell them that they have three days to correct/finish it and resubmit it to you, but emphasize that it’s “on them.”  You won’t remind them again, and if they fail to turn it in, they will get a zero.
  15. Keep a file of IEP and 504 plans you’re given on students.  Highlight the things that you’re obligated to do.  Be sure that you implement them enough to justify compliance if the student still fails or if a parent complains.  This isn’t meant to be derogatory to those students or parents, but most of these accommodations, in my experience, are unnecessary and ultimately counterproductive.  Most of the useful ones are things that, as a good teacher, you do anyway.  However, some parents demand IEP’s and 504’s as ways of “insuring” that their children pass classes, and if they don’t, the parents will come for your head.  Since you can expect no sympathy from the staff at your school (these are, after all, legally binding documents) be ready to defend yourself.  If you can’t explain how you’ve complied with the requirements of a student’s accommodations, you’ll be hot water, and you don’t need that kind of grief.
  16. PC Myth #2: “Students must be comfortable with their environment to learn.”  Horsefeathers!  Learning entails growth and change, which demands sweat.  You don’t need to purposely embarrass students, but you do need to hold them accountable to high standards.  This might take the form of pop quizzes, oral quizzes, or making them re-do poor assignments.  If students fail to turn in an assignment and the class is ready to move on to the next one, make the “slackers” do the first assignment before they’re allowed to progress. 
  17. As soon as possible before school starts, ask the counselors for a student aide.  Every day, have him or her grade at least one set of papers, but make sure it’s something simple: questions from the textbook with concrete answers, or worksheets or quizzes.  Don’t give them writing assignments or anything especially creative to grade, or projects.  Don’t worry about “having one more kid to babysit;” a good student aide is priceless.  Be sure to get him or her something for Christmas and their birthday.
  18. When possible, segregate boys and girls.  Separating students by grade level, race, income, etc. is pointless, but separating them by gender always gets academic results.  If the teacher next door teaches the same subject, consider collaborating on some lessons, and each of you takes all the students of one gender.  Sorry if this offends anyone, but it works.
  19. If some 17-year-old boy enters your class of freshmen, do not sit him next to some 14-year-old girl.  Her father thanks you.
  20. Every subject should require a lot of memorizing.  Not just names and dates, but entire poems and speeches, etc.  You’ll know it’s valuable because they’ll complain bitterly.  It’s when students are complacent that you should worry.
  21. A quick turn-around time on returning graded work is a must.  If this means grading some assignments on completion (which is OK sometimes, if the nature of the assignment is such that simply doing it necessitates doing it right), so be it.  Some assignments can be graded on every other question, etc.  As I said before, keep writing assignments short.  If students get work back in a timely manner, they’re more likely to care about it.  If an assignment comes back after about two weeks and they don’t even remember it anymore, it’s worthless.  Only return assignments that a) they’ll need to study, or b) they put a lot of effort into (or should have).  Not all work is worth keeping track of.
  22. Keep some blank greeting cards in your desk to scribble notes on for students who need cheering up or special congratulations, etc.  Get Thomas Kinkade covers if you can.
  23. When studying a play as a class, do not assign parts and have them read out loud.  They’re terrible at it, and it will kill the play.  If your department doesn’t have audio performances of the play for them to listen to while they read along, your public library will.
  24. Please, please, please don’t show a lot of videos.  Whenever you do, make sure there’s a graded assignment tied into it, even if it’s just listing ten facts from a documentary, or filling in a Venn diagram comparing a film to a novel.  No work = no accountability = no learning.  I can’t think of any good reason to devote more than three hours per quarter to videos. 
  25. Avoid group work.  They’ll usually just copy or play around.  Or both.  People who insist that students need practice “cooperating” and “working with others” are wrong.  They already know how to manipulate such systems and blend in.  They need practice being focused and responsible.  If you do give group work, please make sure that each individual has a specific product or element of the whole for which to be responsible and graded on.
  26. If you’re teaching punctuality, or if you simply want to lessen your load of papers to grade, don’t accept late work.  However, if your priority is educating students about the content of your field, then you must learn to deal with it.  Of course you’ll only accept it one day late, and for half credit, but even then you should be willing to make exceptions.  It’s not fair to you, I know, but if you cared about fair, you wouldn’t be a teacher.
  27. PC Myth #3: “All students can learn.”  Well, maybe they can, but many won’t.  Everybody loves an underdog, and you’ve probably been inspired by some movie where a misfit teacher doesn’t give up on some slacker with a heart of gold until said slacker unleashes their amazing hidden talent and excels.  In the real world, we can’t afford to dwell on those who choose to fail.  In any given class, about 5%-15% of the students will be unreachable.  Don’t waste your time trying to “save” them.  Meanwhile, the majority of your students are getting C’s and D’s when they really should be getting A’s and B’s.  Those students, the fat middle part of the bell curve, should be your priority.  Teach them.
  28. Administrators might insist that you have your lesson plans ready far in advance, which is pointless.  It’s too easy to look a month ahead and plan something so ambitious that it will never work.  Then, when that day comes, you’re stuck with a pipe dream that you can’t actually implement.  The best lesson plans are written two days in advance.  I suggest preparing some pages of generic lesson plans ready to show off at a moment’s notice so they’ll think you’re jumping through their hoops.  Life is just too fluid and unpredictable to plan further ahead than that and set details down in stone.  Be ready to adapt and improvise!
  29. However, you should plan your year like this: before school starts, chart out which novels, units, projects, major objectives, etc. you want to hit each quarter.  As that quarter approaches, add detail to your chart by breaking it down into each of the nine weeks, and add more specific goals and assignments at this time to build toward the major ones you outlined before: this is where you pencil in the smaller assignments that eventually become daily lesson plans.  This will make your “two days ahead” planning much easier.
  30. Have routines: every Friday morning is for independent reading, every other Tuesday is for literary response journals, Monday is for grading last week’s work in class and returning it, every Friday at the end of class is for notebook checks, the last two days of the first half of each quarter are for reviewing for unit tests, etc.  This will help big time with lesson planning.
  31. Never let students be in your classroom when you’re not there.  Lock your door when you’re out.
  32. Mentoring is the ultimate teaching.  Model the kind of adult you want your students to become: carry books around with you, don’t swear, discuss world events, etc. 
  33. If a student is copying another student’s paper, take both papers and give them zeroes.  Do this even if the papers were for another class, and give them to that other teacher.  Further punishment than this is not productive.
  34. Post on your board that you will not accept any kind of late work or even discuss grades during the last week of each quarter.  This will save your sanity.
  35. Have a file set aside somewhere to put papers with no names on them, for students to look through when they wonder why they got a zero on something “they swear they turned in.”  Give them half credit when they find it in there.
  36. Let them prepare an index card of notes to use on major exams.  This is about the only way to get them to study.
  37. Fewer projects, more writing.  Projects don’t teach nearly as much as we’d like to think they do, and they need more practice writing, anyway.
  38. Wake them up with a warning the first time they fall asleep.  Don’t yell or bang anything to do it, just nudge their shoulder with your knuckles. 
  39. Cell phones and iPods are evil.  Period.  Get yourself a reputation as an inveterate hater of all electronic toys in the classroom.
  40. Unless you’re reading out loud to them, there is never a good reason for you to be talking for more than five minutes at a time.  If they’re not working hard independently, they’re not learning.
  41. PC Myth #4: “Students must be able to relate to content to understand or care about it.”  How condescending!  They’re not here to be pandered to, to have their warped, manufactured view of the world reinforced.  They’re here to expand their horizons.  That means intellectual humility borne of introspection brought on by exposure to challenging new ideas.  Shock and awe, baby.
  42. Bloom’s taxonomy is useful for planning assignments, but the “multiple intelligences” theory is not.  Every student wants to be a “people-oriented communicator,” and thinks they are…but they aren’t.  This world revolves around numbers and written words, and the things that radiate from them, and to the degree that we diverge from that in our training of our students, we do them a disservice.
  43. Keep a journal where you record funny moments in your class, memories of students who genuinely gained something from you, photos of themselves at dances that they give you, and anything else that’s positive.  It will save you when you’re ready to tear your hair out.
  44. The perfect balance between professional and approachable behavior is impossible.  In general, lean towards more professional.  Assume that every student is out to get you; don’t give them anything to use against you.  This might appear extreme, but after your first few angry parents, you’ll learn to be cautious.
  45. Most students will need very frequent grade updates to stay at all motivated.
  46. Go into every parent conference armed with copies of updated grade reports, recent samples of the student’s work, and any disciplinary paperwork related to the student.  If they have an IEP or 504, bring it and be ready to explain how you’ve complied with it.
  47. If you have a problem with a student, email their other teachers for advice: someone knows how to deal with him.  If the student is in ROTC or plays a sport, go to the officers or coaches.  They will get you results fast. 
  48. Detention is rarely worth it.  If you do make a student come in, make them use the time to do homework for your class, or clean your room.
  49. Collect homework as soon as the day starts.  Anyone who was “finishing” it after that gets half credit.
  50. Never, ever, ever take any work home with you.