Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Why use technology in the English classroom?
     Originally published in The Journal of the Montana Writing Project

I thought about starting this essay by pointing out that many or most kids today are going to work in environments where communications technologies are ubiquitous, and kids who don’t use those technologies in school are not being well prepared to work in a world that’s already here.

But really, my main reason for using blogs and wikis and podcasts is that it’s fun. I use the Internet to find out what I need to know, to stay in touch with people, to liberate my files from a single hard drive, and to get the work done that makes my life work. What works for me will work for at least some kids-probably most.

If I lived in 1860, I would want to catch a train. If I lived in 1910, I would want to use a telephone. Today, I want all my routine multiple choice assessments to be scored and posted to the grade book automatically. I really want that, but unfortunately that doesn’t happen.

The obvious ways technology could improve productivity--getting rid of repetitive, mindless tasks--aren’t readily incorporated into schools, unless they are repetitive, mindless tasks that afflict the office, such as tallying attendance. I do take attendance online, though I would prefer that kids swiped bar-coded key chain cards when they came into the classroom. I don’t like starting class with a pause while I enter attendance data by hand. I have better things to do.

Like using technology to teach English. Why would I do that? Well, why do cowboys sing?

We’re here. We have voices. It’s our world, too. For a long time the impact of communications technologies on culture tended to be alienating. Sheet music was replaced by vinyl record albums as the main way of distributing music, and this reduced demand for local musicians. Then, as amplifiers got better, recorded music replaced live performances for all sorts of occasions.

The number of local bands dwindled. Singing was fading away, though some people didn’t notice since Elton John’s voice could be heard in every hamlet on the planet.

The same dynamic was at play throughout the culture. Movies, magazines, radio shows, and books all required costly, centralized technologies, so they were created by large corporations rather than by us common folk. A few experts did the performing and all the ways we once entertained ourselves became less common: church plays, quilting bees, dances with local musicians and community socials. A vibrant folk culture was displaced by commercial culture. Fewer cowboys were singing. They were listening to 8-tracks of Waylon and Willie.

But in the last ten years, remarkable things have been happening. Now, anyone can have access to a sophisticated recording studio. Anyone can publish his or her writing for free. Anyone can have movie editing software with many of the capabilities of the big studios. More kids are making music again. But they are not isolated in some basement with hopeless dreams of being discovered. They are burning their own cds, making their own music videos, and posting their songs on their own websites, where anyone on the planet can download them. They are writing and publishing their own texts on My Space blogs. They are creating their own movies and publishing them on You Tube.

Some of it is pretty good. Unfortunately, more of it is wretched. After all, the major influence on many kids has been a commercial culture that, while it has often made the performances of remarkable talents available to millions, has also been pushing astonishingly toxic productions at young people.

Teachers who are playing heads up ball see this as a huge opportunity. The quality of those My Space blogs matter. They really matter, much more than another essay about To Kill a Mockingbird, which is not something the world greatly needs. What the world does greatly need is more great private literature. More poems written for one person. More letters that articulate important thoughts about vital questions from one person to one or two others. More Powerpoints with recorded narration celebrating important events, such as the building of a new tree house or the first drive in a restored ‘64 Impala, to be shared with family and friends.

Yes, we should still read Auden, but more for more inspiration, more for models, more like writers read. We should teach students to become people with their own original work to get done.

The generation that is in high school right now is already creating a folk culture and a private literature that is vast. It includes stories, music, movies, diaries, slide shows and all sorts of combinations. Folk cultures are normally more powerfully educative than schools-as can be read easily in comparisons of demographics and test scores-and what this emerging digital culture becomes will have profound implications.

I rather think we, as teachers, will be its allies and it will be ours, or it will largely displace us. There are a few good reasons for keeping the mass attendance centers we now use as schools, but there are also lots of reasons to leave them. They’re protected right now by political arrangements designed by school board associations and teachers unions, but what the citizenry wants it will get, and the attractions to students and parents of online education will become increasingly compelling as those clients realize more clearly what is possible.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind at all if the online world opened new ways for teachers to work. Some days absenteeism, makeup, broken copiers, long commutes, 20-minute lunches, and the smell of floor wax gets me down a little. I feel like going out and making a movie.

So far, schools don’t know what to do about the new communication culture. They’re banning cell phones and blocking the Internet and email. Some days it seems our IT staff exists just to make it impossible for me to use the new online tools, all of which require email registration, which our server blocks. Actually, our IT staff is just Ceth, who is an amiable and accommodating wizard, but schools with hundreds of adolescents are not the best places for turning anyone loose in cyberspace. That’s fine, I suppose, but what schools also need to be doing, or at least what teachers of writing and photography and art and music could be doing, is helping kids use the tools so that the art and literature that they are creating is as appropriate and wise and powerful as it can be.

Kids have a lot they should be thinking about. What is appropriate to reveal about oneself in public? Digital information lasts forever. A semi-pornographic photo that seemed funny at the moment can lead to all sorts of problems, now and later. It takes some wisdom to deal with the permanence of this medium. Idle words tossed off as a prank may be read by future employers, future spouses, future adversaries, but also by future grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We are only beginning to consider what this means and how it changes the way we live. The young people need grownups who know what’s going on to talk things through as they go.

To a great extent, young people will do what they will do. But we could be helping them with their productions in these new media, teaching them what we know about quality scripts and making our best case for the standards we really care about. For generations, educators have labored toward the goal of bringing young people to basic literacy, giving them the power to encode and decode written language. Today, most adults in America can read a newspaper, decipher a letter from the bank, or send a note to a child away from home. This is no small achievement. But today basic literacy isn’t enough.

When publication meant printed books and magazines there was little incentive for most people to commit the time and energy needed to become skillful writers, because opportunities for publishing were limited. No more. An increasing portion of the information available to us will be created not by professionals but by ourselves. The decline of literary reviews in newspapers received a lot of attention last year, and while this caused real dismay, we should not ignore the fact that new forms of reviewing, such as the thousands of user-written reviews on Amazon, are becoming widespread. Manufacturers report that, increasingly, user reviews of their goods and services are driving sales. Apparently, lots of ordinary people are willing to write reviews and provide information. Like cowboys around the campfire, we’re getting our culture back. It will be what we make of it.

And it will be a lot more than reviews and reports. The world has always had great private literature--the letter from a father to a son that changed a life, the memoir of a grandmother that inspired generations of descendants, the heartfelt expression of an honest emotion that cemented a friendship--and the quality of life in the digital age will be closely related to the amount and quality of private literature that we create. Most people and most families will maintain an archive of words and images, accumulating through lifetimes.

Lots of kids are already their own publishers, posting whatever they want on My Space. For many families the family photo album has already migrated to the web and has become a primary venue for creative expression. Where once we had occasional images with one-line captions, we now have multimedia libraries. Lots of young people will do much of their reading not in the mass media and not in the library but on the web sites of families and friends. Already, many young people would rather spend an hour watching homemade videos on You Tube than watching commercial television. Not just kids. I often spend a free hour watching You Tube but it’s been years since I’ve watched any television except the news. The range of offerings is dazzling. Some people have their own television shows with episodes posted weekly. Some people make poetry videos featuring clever animation. Many videos are answered by other videos, creating a new form of dialogue. It’s not hard to find things more compelling than commercial television, which, by its nature is bland and predictable.

English teachers should be excited by the prospect of a culture of writing consisting of more thana few “stars” and the bestseller lists. We only need a few New York Times bestsellers-two or three every other year or so would satisfy me--but we need as many intelligent and well-crafted Powerpoints celebrating fiftieth anniversaries and movies sent to sons away at war and reflections by young mothers as we can get. We need millions of them.

Whenever possible, school work should be real work. A digital album of a trip told in words and images can be great literature. So can a movie of a family’s response to a sudden storm, or a Powerpoint commemorating the death of a grandmother, or a video tribute to a ranch family’s relationship to the landscape, or a slideshow giving a personal response to a favorite literary work. Great writers have always known that everyday life is the source of powerful writing. I watched a Powerpoint done by a sophomore girl in Phil Leonardi’s class in Corvallis telling the story of a decades old murder in Corvallis, researched in microfilm of old newspapers, that was as compelling as an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. The production values were a little lower, but it was about here. I watched an interview-based movie made by students in Renee Rasmussen’s class in Chester about the impact on Joplin of closing their high school in a consolidation move. It was stunningly evocative. It will become a permanent part of the history of that community. It was real work.

This is a good time to recommit to being not primarily consumers of commercial culture but also producers of our own culture, our own literature about the places and lives that we know. And if we do it with our students, we’ll find all sorts of intractable problems won’t need to be solved. They’ll just dissolve. Besides, it’s a great adventure.

It’s also a necessity. Our new powers bring real risks. We are quickly moving into a world full of simulations and deceptions.  It’s important that young develop their personal voices, backed by hard research and made bold by a faith that they have really seen what they have seen, really heard what they have heard, and really felt what they have felt. We need human witness and human voices that we trust. Kids need to hear us talk about trust in the real life situations, because trust is as vital in the information age as petroleum was in the machine age. The Internet moves destructive information as readily as constructive information, and we need a citizenry that understands how vital it is that we are ethical, restrained, attentive and honest. In other words, things are going to be just as they have always been, only more so.

Of course, there are lesser but still important reasons to use technology. One is that high schools seem stuck, and anything with potential to unstick them is a source of hope. They are stuck with all sorts of pretenses.

There’s the pretense of “make up.” In high absentee districts--that is, districts with athletic programs--most make up is a pretense. I’m not sure whether the pretense is that the work was made up or that anything was missed. In either case, kids have so many opportunities outside the classroom and parents so little interest in sacrificing such opportunities for any notion of the common good, that no one is going to fix attendance.

Technology has enormous potential to make missing class less disruptive both for students and for teachers. Actually, it’s not potential. Everything we need now exists. Learning how to use it and getting districts to spend the money is another thing. I work on this as much as I have time--being sure assignments are online with downloadable copies of handouts, with links to texts or webquests or videos that cover roughly what was done in. I find it amusing and fulfilling to figure out as much as I can about how it could work with the time and tools I have now, and even small improvement yield pretty good dividends. I can easily print a copy of whatever past or future assignment an office aide wants for the boy who is taking a 10-day surfing vacation in Costa Rica or the girl under house arrest.

I like to think that if something like Hurricane Katrina hits the school and it is physically gone fora few months, my classes at least will still be able to meet online and continue our work.

We use blogs--both individual student blogs and a class blog. A blog is just a website where new pages are created by typing or pasting into a form and then clicking “submit.” It’s quite like sending an email and just as easy.

I can subscribe to individual student blogs using Real Simple Syndication (RSS) and a blog aggregator such as Bloglines or Google Reader. What this means is that I can open my aggregator and a list of all the student blogs will appear. I can tell at a glance if anyone has posted anything since the last time I read them. If I click on a student name, his or her posts will appear in the reading pane. I can add comments. It’s far easier to manage than having assignments emailed tome. And it suits me far more than managing papers. Since I can access the blogs from any computer anywhere, I never carry papers home and I never get accused of losing a paper. I have an automatic record of exactly when an assignment was posted. Also, students can turn in work in the evening or on weekends, which solves quite a few problems.

I also use a class blog, where all students post on the same site. I can post a question and ask them all to answer it, or I can simply have them turn in essay assignments by posting them. I can easily ask them to read and comment on other students’ work. I can direct everyone to read an exemplary piece of student writing. I’ve automatically got a copy of everything they’ve written in a digital portfolio.

I put on the class blog’s sidebar a list of links to common writing problems. Beside each link I put a color: red=nonparallel structure; yellow=passive voice; blue=pronoun/antecedent errors, etc. I highlight errors in their writing with the appropriate color. They follow the link, read the explanation, then fix the error and remove my highlighting.

The blog for my class home page is here:

I also use a class wiki. A wiki is similar to a blog, except that everyone can edit the same page.It’s good for class projects, such as creating an annotated version of a historical text. This is a good way to handle difficult texts that require lots of annotation for difficult words and historic context. Wikis can be given real world uses that give the work more value. For example, students could create a wiki introducing younger students to a history of their town, with different students adding information on different topics.

The advantages of blogs and wikis is that they are very easy to learn and simple to use. No html is needed and the formatting is done by templates that are applied by the program, so the writer needs to think only about writing.

There are many other free tools. Google notebooks allow a student to take notes from websites by simply marking the text, then using a right click to get to a special “copy” command.  The program automatically records the url for complete citations. It takes only a couple clicks to create a new notebook for a new topic. One notebook for “Theodore Roosevelt”. A new one for"1912 Election”. When the research is done, the notes can be copied to a work processor or printed out.

Zoho has a full featured word processor that is web-based. A student working on a paper at school can get to the document at home, without email or carrying a disk. The document can also be shared, so others can add comments or edit it.

There are, naturally, quite a few bloggers who blog about education and teaching. Here are some of the more popular ones: - Dana Huff’s blog is about English education and technology. She’s a classroom teacher and she discusses both teaching English and using technology. Her site even features the “Room 303 Blog” where students record their observations on her class.

Stephen’s Web - Stephen Downs is a new media and online learning guru who works for the National Research Council in New Brunswick. He gives many presentations on using technology in education, and analyzes how it affects learning and how it can best be used.

edtechpost - Scott Leslie writes reviews and reports on new software and other tools, and he ruminates on what’s happening in education and technlogy

weblogg-ed - Will Richardson is the author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms published by Corwin Press. His blog discussesthose technologies in the K-12 realm.

Follow-up Pew/Internet reports that content creation by teens continues to increase, with 64% of online teenagers ages 12 to 17 engaging in at least one type of content creation.

Michael Umphrey’s new book, The Power of Community-Centered Education: Teaching as a Craft of Place has just been published by Rowman & Littlefield. He teaches at Polson High school.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

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