Archive for July, 2006

Dear Senator

Jul 30 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics,technology

Send your message in opposition to DOPA by going to the US Senate website and locate your senator with the Find Your Senators dropdown menu in the upper right corner of the page.

This is my letter to Lisa Murkowski. Feel free to model yours after this one. I used Vicki Davis’ blog post and Chistopher Harris’ wiki page as information resources.

Dear Senator Murkowski,
I am a teacher from Fairbanks, and I am asking that you vote in opposition to The Deleting Online Predators Act (HR. 5319), a bill that was recently approved by the House of Representatives. This bill is overbroad and will have a stifling effect on schools and libraries at a time when we need to expand our students’ horizons rather than narrow them.

I am a 23-year veteran Alaska teacher with an MEd in Language and Literacy, and a K-12 Alaska State Reading Endorsement. I am committed to literacy education for all students in our state, and I feel strongly that we need appropriate Internet resources in our schools and libraries for students to become proficient in the new literacies of the 21st century.

Although the DOPA bill is well intentioned, it will fail to achieve its stated purpose. The bill prohibits school and library access to "œcommercial Web sites that let users create public "˜Web pages or profiles"™ and also offer a discussion board, chat room, or e-mail service." Schools currently have acceptable use policies. And sites such as MySpace, Xanga, and Facebook are already blocked from school servers. Students will nonetheless continue to access these social networking sites after school from home where there may be NO adult supervision. Students should be educated about privacy and online safety the same as they are about personal and public safety with Health and Driver Education. Our best hope of teaching students about responsible Internet use is in our classrooms.

Educational websites could also be unnecessarily blocked for teachers with legitimate instructional goals. Students may no longer be able to do collaborative research on wikis, or to publish their stories in weblogs. Real-time communication with scientists such as in the Jason Project might also be restricted.

Our congressional representatives surely don’t intend to obstruct legitimate educational processes. A better solution to the problem of online safety for minors would be to encourage schools to develop curriculum for education on this very important issue.

Senator Murkowski, I know that you are a supporter of public education, and that you are an advocate for children. The Deleting Online Predators Act neither supports education nor protects children. Please oppose or offer an amendment to this legislation so that we might continue to use appropriate web resources in our schools and libraries. Our goal is to protect the safety as well as the educational opportunities of students.

Doug Noon

One thing about Alaska, we are all neighbors in a way that you don’t feel in other more populous areas. I’m curious to see how Lisa responds.

8 responses so far

Too Safe

Jul 29 2006 Published by under borderland,politics,technology

The illogic in Rep. Ted Poe’s speech is indicative of blind panic.

“Social networking sites such as MySpace and chat rooms have allowed sexual predators to sneak into homes and solicit kids,” said Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican and co-founder of the Congressional Victim’s Rights Caucus. “This bill requires schools and libraries to establish (important) protections.”

Congressman Poe assumes that if people are handing out keys to their homes, the problem will be solved by placing restrictions on schools. This of course only makes sense if you are also afraid of the dark and think it reasonable to make a law requiring everyone to sit up all night with the lights on. It is irresponsible fear mongering. Read Herman Melville’s little parable of The Lightning Rod Man to get a literary perspective.

I heard a conversation on the radio yesterday among some civil engineers talking about structural failures and one of them used the term “too safe” to describe a class of design flaws caused by overcompensating for possible hazards. I thought about how overbuilding things reduces their utility. A bridge becomes a culvert, for example. A fence would be a wall. A shoe becomes a boot. Some things would be altogether useless. As in, what would a boot become?

The Cool Cat Teacher Blog takes the DOPA bill apart and looks at its various problems. The main difficulty with the law is that it is over-broad and treats technology as something inherently dangerous when it’s the people using it we should worry about.

I propose an alternative motion. It is called “Deleting Ignorant Congressional Kneejerk-Emergency Motions” (You can work out the acronym). I move that any law exploiting fear and panic for support be automatically disqualified from legislative consideration, and it’s sponsor stripped naked and made to stand on the steps of the Capitol for a day with a cardboard sign that says No Place to Hide.

But spite of my treatment, and spite of my dissuasive talk of him to my neighbours, the Lightning-rod man still dwells in the land; still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man. (Melville, The Lightning Rod Man)

4 responses so far

DOPA and the New Bubble

Jul 28 2006 Published by under borderland,politics,technology

The World Trade Center atrocity happened in September during moose hunting season. All of the bush planes in Alaska were grounded along with general air traffic in the US. Never mind that there were hunters out in the bush waiting to be picked up who had no idea why their ride didn’t show. Terror reached all the way out to the end of the earth and gave a few anxious hunters who truly had no clue something to wonder and worry about.

That was the beginning of Bush’s War on Terror. Those hunters came back to a changed world. Terror is big business these days. The protagonist in Bruce Sterling’s The Zenith Angle is a cyberwarrior, a geek with an attitude, who called terror “the new bubble.” It feeds on an advertising ploy. Create a market by selling insecurity, and then cash in on the fix. The predatory profit makers are like wolves who maneuver the public into thinking that they’re being done a favor. Congress helps with the legislative muscle to guarantee success, and they get to claim responsibility for their far-sightedness.

The “Deleting Online Predators Act” may not be about making money for anyone at this point, but it still stinks. It looks like reckless election year political grandstanding. It requires “recipients of universal service support for schools and libraries to protect minors from commercial social networking websites and chat rooms” which everyone knows are dangerous. Once it passes, the kids will be safe and life will go on. We’ll be able to relax and think about North Korea, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Muslims again. We’ll have things under control.

Locking down school web servers in the name of child safety won’t seem like such a bad idea to most people. The way the average person sees it there’s no cost to this. It’s a no-brainer. The kids are in school to learn, and they shouldn’t be messing around with the internet anyway. There will only be a few teachers wondering about the why of it all, like those moose hunters.

I wonder if we’re going to have to spend the winter out here, because I didn’t come prepared for that long a wait. Maybe we should build a big signal fire to get someone’s attention. But then, we haven’t seen any planes flying at all. Who do you think will come to pick us up? There’s one thing I do know about being lost – Don’t panic. We’ll figure something out. It may be a bit rough, but it could be interesting.

6 responses so far

Community Plumbing and Literacy Lessons

Jul 24 2006 Published by under borderland,literacy,teacher research,technology

A home repair project has me thinking about literacy lessons, student blogging technology, and the pros and cons of do-it-yourself design. The do-it-yourself method has always been my approach to practical problems.

A great thing about living in rural Alaska is that construction permits are not required unless you’re financing with a bank. This is obvious when you see some of the houses around here. Until the power grid was extended to where we live we did without a lot of modern conveniences. We brought our water home in plastic jugs from the laundromat. We used an outhouse for our elimination needs and we built a nice sauna to bathe in. We used propane for refrigeration and cooking. We used kerosene, and a 12-volt system for lights. We heated with wood. It worked, but it was work.

Kids in diapers made the advantages of plumbing more obvious. We had power for about two years before we began to think about using it to run a pump, and so we began to think about running water. The laundromat got expensive and the time spent there was a drag, so we upgraded the house to conventional standards. We got a bank loan and contracted out all of the work on the house. I tried to stay out of the way, but I ended up doing several jobs, like building decks and installing the wood floor. What I didn’t learn, and didn’t want to learn, was plumbing.

It seems ironic to me that Drupal’s development site home page is called Community Plumbing since plumbing was the reason for the major upgrade to the house, and I’ve settled on using Drupal as my classroom blogging platform.

out of order Plumbing has been on my mind today. This is the day that I’ve been long expecting-I become a do-it-yourself plumber. I’m tearing up and patching the floor because of a slow leak under the toilet. It’s not a big deal, except that it’s taking a lot of time, and it will come out looking like a repair job.

The connection with literacy teaching and blogging comes in here. For teachers who want to do more than simply implement the curriculum-as-received there is some additional work to be done beyond the normal practical preparation. If you want to use weblogs as a publishing medium with your students, you will need to figure out how to go about it, and the first thing to think about is whether you want to host a site yourself or use a system that is maintained by someone else. See the Blog Tool Options wiki to compare.

Because this is a do-it-yourself commentary, I should say that there are pros and cons to any choice you make. Like with my plumbing problem, I could have called a plumber to fix the toilet, but he would not have done anything worthwhile with my floor. I’d need a carpenter for that, and since it’s a custom floor, it would cost me a lot of money to have someone fix it. One thing I’ve learned, if a carpenter agrees to do a half-assed job because you don’t want to spend the money to have it done properly, then you probably don’t want that carpenter anyway, and you might as do the lousy job yourself, which is why I’m fixing my own toilet and my own floor.

hole It’s going to look rough, but it will work. The same thing will happen if you build your own website. And you will have the added satisfaction of knowing that anything that goes wrong with it is your own fault, plus (with Drupal, anyway) you can add lots of features like categories and user levels, moderation for comments and posts, image galleries, and custom URL’s for any page. You can have students work on collaborative books, AND each kid can have their own blog. All you have to do is learn a little bit about domain hosting and setting up a database. Not so simple, you say? Maybe not, but with some time and desire it can be done. I know.

This is exactly the same thing that will happen when you decide to abandon the text book and the basal and teach reading on the fly. You have to read a lot of research and hunt around for resources. You need to review everything ahead of time, and you need to expect that things will frequently turn out a bit rough. This is how it is for me, at least. And with that I have the satisfaction of knowing that I don’t need to use the boring stories or the meaningless vocabulary exercises that are provided by the publisher. I can follow my instincts and run the classroom like the expert I’m paid to be. This is rough on substitutes and parents who want to know what you’re doing next week. Uh…depends on what happens this week.

You can do it all yourself. It will work, but it’s work. And you’ll know why.

One response so far

The Last Frontier

Jul 23 2006 Published by under borderland,education,technology

Copper RiverMaxine Greene’s Teacher as Stranger was written for teachers who want to look beyond slogans and conventional beliefs about education in order to discover what is demanded of us as we engage in the work of shaping human consciousness. The book was written over 30 years ago, but the questions Greene posed are strikingly apropos in our present time as calls for educational reform become increasingly shrill.

It is to become clear as well about the preferences with respect to “good” and “right” which motivate pressure groups, bureaucrats, community representatives, and parents when they make demands of the schools. What teacher today can ignore the contesting notions of relevancy, appropriateness, value? What teacher can escape the challenges and complexities of decision making in the midst of a not-always-friendly world? (Greene, p. 7)

She argued that teachers need to become aware of our taken-for-granted views about human beings so that we can evaluate the effects we produce as we intervene in the lives of our students.

…there is a whole spectrum of visions, with man as animal at one end, man as paragon or god figure at the other. At each point in the spectrum, there is a distinctive approach to education, usually derived from a definition of man or a definite vision of man-in-the-world. Most of these approaches share the conviction that no matter how sacred the child or how close to the divine, something specific has to be done to enable him to become a true human being-to enculturate him. (Greene, p. 71)

Artichoke responded to a comment from me in which I suggested that our definitions of human beings might impinge on what it means to teach and to learn, and she captured the issue with imaginative flair, pointing to a story by Terry Bisson, They’re Made Out of Meat.

FishbarrowThis was coincidental with my return from a fishing mission to Chitina where Alaskans can net 30 salmon from the Copper River to fill the family freezer. Standing on a canyon rock above a boiling glacial river holding a long-handled net, hands and feet covered in blood and slime will provoke thoughts about mortality and the “meatiness” of beings. I was scraping bugs off my license plate and washing the grit from my truck after getting home when I noticed the slogan, “The Last Frontier,” on the plate. It may have been a frontier for some people in the previous century, but I believe the boundary has moved.

Artichoke sees herself as cyborgian as she uses her computer to record her thinking, and she asks

Is Doug right? Is part of the disquiet over learning in schools simply that some of us want learning experiences, and success criteria, suited to the behaviours of “cyborgian machines” and others are hanging on to the hope that we are still “sentient meat”.

I believe that it may not be “simply,” a divergence between two competing conceptualizations of humanity. There are probably other possibilities, but I suspect Artichoke has identified the extremes. I’d been thinking the issue over a bit, and felt that I’d made some progress with it until I ran across the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Commentary by Ray Kurzweil, Embracing Change, where he moves the cyborg imagery a little closer to center of things. Kurzweil speculates that within 30 years

“nanobots” – robots the size of blood cells – will keep us healthy from inside, indefinitely extending human longevity. These nanobots will also go inside our brains through the capillaries, and interact with our biological neurons.

And Kurzweil asks, “Will we still be human?” So there we go again, and I’m left having to consider this notion of techno-personhood when I’ve got enough problems untangling the mortal mess we’ve got with the biological beings on hand now. And I am compelled to wonder, “How, or what, do we teach cyborgs?” We should probably begin working on an answer to this question soon.

The last frontier, despite what it says on my license plate, is undoubtedly the boundary of what we mean by “human nature.” Our discoveries in the world will ultimately tell us new things about ourselves as beings. Teachers don’t need to decide once and for all about the essential qualities of human nature in order to proceed with their work because it is an open question with many answers that depend on circumstances. As we intervene in students’ lives we should be conscious of our doing so, and remain mindful of the beliefs that inform our decisions. Ours is increasingly a job that demands circumspection and deliberation because we can’t assume that traditions or conventions will hold meaning in a future that is up for grabs.

Even our assumptions about the usefulness of literacy may be out of line. Whose literacy will we teach? Ours, or one that is yet unknown? What is necessary is to try to determine how to best help people orient themselves to the society they live in and to create themselves as beings, to explore their potentials and to dream, not choosing what to become, but how to be.

3 responses so far

A Bum Steer from the IRA

Jul 17 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,science

From Borderland’s Ministry of Barnyard Literacy Rants:

Timothy Shanahan, the current International Reading Association president, claims he never said that kids shouldn’t read in school. But he damns himself in his own defense by making a narrow argument against devoting class time to SSR (sustained silent reading).

Shanahan appraised the IRA mission,

According to its bylaws, IRA has three primary purposes: (1) to improve the quality of reading instruction, (2) to encourage reading and an interest in reading, and (3) to promote reading proficiency.

and he offered his opinion on goal #2.

The issue isn"™t whether it is good to practice. It is whether we can get kids to read more"”and to read enough to improve their reading ability….One goal is a public responsibility, while the other is a personal aspiration. That is a critical distinction. It means the larger community expects, or even requires, us to teach well, but the stimulating desire part is our game, not theirs.

It might mean something else. To say that one goal is a public responsibility and the other is a personal aspiration excludes a multitude of other possibilities. How about, “…and the other is a moral commitment?”… Shanahan is correct when he says that our instructional approach depends on the kind of society we wish to create, but this is unavoidable. We teach students based on our beliefs about what they need to know to become the people we want them to be. Teaching calls us to influence human consciousness. Our commitments to that end should serve as seeds for reflection on what it means to be human in the world we’re creating.

If my “personal aspiration” happens to be that I wish to work for social justice, to help individuals gain self-awareness, to teach that dreams are foundations for our future plans, that possibilites are limitless, that doubt is not defeat, and that disquiet may also be the catalyst for questions that embolden, enlighten, and ultimately change the world then my aspiration becomes a moral imperative for the empowerment of literate self-directed learners.

Quality of instruction certainly relates to student motivation. To believe otherwise misses the point of education completely. It ignores the humanness of the endeavor and promotes a reductionist approach to teaching as a technical service. I urge teachers to be accountable to more than metrics. We need to first hold ourselves accountable to our ideals. We need to rise above technical proficiency and strive for ethical integrity.

To ignore the merits of encouraging literate practices because a “benefit hasn’t been found” is stupid. All we have to do is choose to look through our own eyes and believe the evidence that comes from our common sense to know if SSR benefits readers and increases motivation. A benefit hasn’t been found? Says who? Say researchers who are hell-bent on seeing only what can be measured. The naked ignorance of this claim is astounding.

We might want to measure what we value, but we should be careful not to value only what we can measure. Once we conclude that only measurable phenomena are admissible evidence of student progress we cut ourselves off from valuing a multitude of human traits. Because we can’t measure joy, or pain, confidence, or anxiety, should we claim that they don’t matter? That they don’t exist?

It’s a fool’s quest to proceed confidently into the classroom armed with a calculator and a crude testing instument looking for “benefit.” The ignorance of people who promote “scientifically-based” teaching distresses me. When the only truths we can believe about ourselves are “measurable” we’ll be stripped of our critical substance. We’ll be pliable consumers of slogans and propaganda dressed up as research.

I’m apalled that the president of the IRA could be so blind, so narrow, so selfish and so hypocritical to accuse teachers of pursuing their “personal aspirations” even as he does so himself in choosing to disregard one of his organization’s primary purposes. This isn’t leadership. It’s a bum steer, and we don’t need this worthless bull.

6 responses so far

Susan Ohanian’s Resources

Jul 12 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics

I learned yesterday that Susan Ohanian included Borderland on her list of Featured Resources. I’ve had a link to Susan’s website in my sidebar for a long while – maybe since I began writing here, and her resources offer opinion, research, and background information that is both useful and interesting. Susan offers inciteful commentary in an interesting take-no-prisoners style. For example, from her article published in Phi Delta Kappan, Capitalism, Calculus and Conscience, Susan wrote:

Dismissing children’s vomit and tears and anger as “only anecdotal,” these thugs and the pollsters who ask them how things are going are conspicuously silent about the child abuse that concerns resisters. In defending the MCAS, Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David Driscoll told the Boston Globe that he knows fourth-graders are crying, but “that’s the way the world is.” There it is — the difference between a teacher and a Standardisto: teachers stop for a 9-year-old’s tears. Of course, if they stop on testing day, they risk losing their jobs in Tennessee, New Jersey, and Florida, to name just three states where teachers are forbidden to talk to students — or to look at the test they are making students take.

Susan is a straight shooter, and she speaks right from the heart.

I’m honored to have this blog included as a resource on her site. If you have any interest in educational activism you owe it to yourself to visit her website and follow some of the links she has listed. Plan on spending some time, because there is a lot there.

3 responses so far

Yukon Time

Jul 10 2006 Published by under borderland

A mind at full ease with itself would not need to slither onto a page; a serene mind would not need to speak its mind.” (Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things, p.34)

KluaneBefore I dive back into the edublogging action with all of the linking and thinking, I’m going to take a breath and exhale slowly. We were in the Canadian Yukon for the past dozen days, hiding out from the world. I took some pictures with my new camera.

Several years ago Amy and I decided that the Yukon was a great and mostly undiscovered outdoor playground, perfect for us, and we’ve been back there many times. The main reason for us to go camping in the Yukon instead of Alaska is infrastructure. Camping off the road system in Alaska is complicated by the need for expensive transport into the bush. Camping on the road system in Alaska feels crowded to those of us who live out in the hills.

In the Yukon there are fewer (far fewer) people. There are dozens of big lakes and every one of them has a road to it with a boat ramp. Not only that, there’s free DRY firewood in the campgrounds, clean outhouses, and nobody carries a handgun. In a word, it’s Civilized and still retains the aesthetic qualities offered by more remote and hard-to-get places.

Camping TrailerAn ideological challenge presented itself about halfway through our trip. We discovered that there were mice living in the utility trailer which held our food, clothes, sleeping bags, etc. They didn’t look like any rodent that lives around Fairbanks, so I suppose they were hitchhikers. I wish I’d taken a picture, but sometimes when you are in the midst of a crisis you lose perspective. We found them at dinner time, in the food box. We began the extermination exercise by first lifting and shaking each tarp and garbage bag, removing every item from the trailer, making a pile of mostly fishing gear on the ground. Eventually we found three mice who took refuge in the corners of the trailer bed, hiding where we had to peer down into a dark space between the deck lumber and the trailer frame to see them. They weren’t truly hidden or safe, except that we didn’t want to murder them outright. We’re not meat eaters because we don’t like to kill stuff, though we do eat fish and we’re not perfect. So the kids and I tried to coax these uncooperative pests out of their shelter.

The kids tried banging on the trailer frame and soon decided that shock and awe was not going to convince these hooligans to dash into the unknown from their “safe” little corners. So we tried using twigs as a nonviolent method of prodding them, hoping they’d run away. The mice didn’t get it that we were being wimpy vegetarians trying to negotiate a deal. I saw right away that we could easily maim or kill them by ramming a bigger stick into their dark little corners, but we resisted that barbaric option. My son suggested spraying them with a massive dose of mosquito repellent, but we told him that chemical warfare is considered inhumane. My younger daughter (who wanted to keep one for a pet) tried waiting for them to come out of hiding to trap them under a cup. She learned that mice are faster than she is. I made a ramp off the back of the trailer with a piece of plywood as an escape route (for the mice), and the smartest one took advantage of my offer, though it unfortunately hid in the wheel of our car so I drove off with it giving it a once-in-a-lifetime centrifuge ride before it dashed into the woods, dizzy.

The other two mice did not fare as well. After considering our options, our principles, and our dignity as members of a world-making species, we decided that we would not be held hostage by these tiny terrorists for the rest of our vacation. I found the suitable stick and announced my intentions to the misguided bleeding heart liberals in the family. They hid in the tents to avoid emotional distress from what they all admitted needed to be done. Wham, wham, wham. Needle-nosed pliers to recover the bodies. Camp fire cremation. No more mice. Slight remorse at not quite killing one of them. My son consoled me by reminding me, “At least it isn’t a moose.”

Sometimes limited options force you to carefully weigh your priorities and more clearly define your values. The technologies we have at our disposal are not always the best or the first choice, but with a little creative ingenuity and a clear purpose even a simple willow stick can be a tool for both annihilation and reflection.

Serenity is not my destiny. When the world is perfect, I’ll shut up.

8 responses so far