Sunday, February 28, 2010

Building Perfect Worlds

(From my blog to parents. Call me lazy.)

I took a close look at what I had planned for this quarter and then took closer look at our last quarter of the semester. Some of the projects and essays I want the students to work on are just too important to skip, so it looks like I will bleed this unit over into the next quarter. I think this will work out simply because my plans are based on last years time line. You may not know this, but Echo Hill was usually in the Spring and cut into 4th quarter studies. Since we have already taken care of this 8th grade trip, we have some time to wiggle around in.

Which brings us to our current study. We are taking closer looks into the idea of equality and fairness (a topic that is a favorite of our students and, no doubt, a regular guest star at family discussions) through the literary device of "Utopia." I am trying to encourage the students' imagination to work in tandem with their budding ability in logic. Through the genre of Science Fiction, we are exploring Scott Westerfeld's futuristic world of "Uglies." I know, I know: your professors probably turned their nose up at the Sci-Fi genre and told you it wasn't "serious literature." Well I have two words for that argument: Kurt Vonnegut.

I doubt many would disparage Mr. Vonnegut as a frivolous author and he used Science Fiction as a mode of delivering some rather arch observations on current events. He is not alone. Today, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are still the most widely read authors of their time. The popularity of TV shows like "Lost" and the triumphant return of cult classic "Dr. Who" are also evidence of how modern writers are commenting on current events such as quantum mechanics, ethical relativism, and the future of the Human race. And you know what else? Science Fiction is fun to read.

This quarter, students will write an essay where they imagine what their prefect work would be like and what it says about their current points of view. They will also build a model of a community from this vision complete with a handbook on how to live in it as well as a brochure to entice people to live there. Many of them have already made the leap that at the heart of a "perfect" world is a kernel of disaster waiting to blossom. Many of them have read "The Giver" and we have watched the first 15 minuted of "Logan's Run" and they suspect that there are nefarious elements at work id something seems too good to be true.

It is my hope that when they go on to read "1984", "Brave New World", and Plato's "Republic," that they will recognize those environments from the work they do this here. I hope that there are some thought provoking discussions at the family dinner table.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Snow Week 2010

I am snowed in and looking for other things to do (except grading). So I visit my good old blog and its two followers.

Lately, I have been playing with my students on a closed social network called a "ning." Frustrated with the sluggish progress our educational stabilization centers are making around integrating tech and preparing our students for 21st century, I decided to take the bull by the horns (or the cell phone by the blue-tooth). This happened to coincide with my head-of-school looking into a moratorium on the cell phone ban in middle school, the challenge of the Head Master to look for ways to continue teaching in the event of school wide shut down (kind of like now), and my own desire for the B.B.D. (Bigger Better Deal). After playing around with blogs like this, Moodle (open source software our school uses), and other Web 2.0 sites. I stumbled on a site that has actually been around for about 4 years.

I get ahead of the story.

The story begins with a blanket announcement from our Headmaster that all online interactions between students and teachers must be restricted to official school business and channels. This was met with confusion from those faculty members of a certain generation who still think e-mail is pretty nifty, and with surprise (yet not surprised) from faculty members who already "friended" students on Face Book.

Again, maybe I should go back farther. I was receiving "friends" requests from current and former students and grew tired of telling them "no" for obvious reasons (obvious to me, at least). As a more productive answer, I created a second Face Book account exclusively for myself and my students. Every time I received a request, I reminded the student of the "Acceptable Use" policy of our school and that, from my perspective, any interactions between myself and said student would follow major school rules. Every student accepted this; every parent and teacher on this account accepted this policy as well. The result was that there was another set of adult eyes and ears on students' Face Book accounts.

Back to my little narrative. The lawyers and insurance brokers for our school only saw big lawsuits waiting to happen. The most safest and conservative decision was to suspend such interactions. Our Headmaster was not happy about making the announcement and, after a private consult, made it clear to me that he was open to alternatives for the future.

I love a challenge.

As other schools, both private, public, and parochial, were wrestling with these same issues, there were some schools taking the social media head on and co-opting it for education uses. Using Face Book and cell phones instead of shunning them (as only U.S schools and Al Qaeda can) are real possibilities and are being demonstrated as such on a regular basis. Why should our school wait in the wings for Phillips Exeter to do something first? Why not take the lead in using the tech in tandem with our own creativity as educators?

Somehow, in my internet insomnia bouts (also known as "research"), I came across the concept of the "ning." I created one just for my class to see how easy it was,or was not, to use. Perhaps not as easy as Face Book, but simple enough that a few beta tester teachers could figure it out. Now, in our third quarter, my students and I are creating a virtual society that parallels the one created by Scott Westerfeld in his young adult novel, "Uglies." They are posting pictures, sharing videos, commenting on each others ideas, spontaneously engaging in pre-reading activities, and chatting with new "friends" that they would not ordinarily speak to in the hallways.

I will try to include more as we learn from each other.