For now, AI is more hype than substance.

There’s Human Intelligence, and Artificial kind. I wasn’t taken up by the recent bluster about AI which arrived in 2022 all dressed up, but wearing flipflops. Somehow there was a mismatch between its promise and what it delivers.

I did give it a try, however. Just like I once wandered into ‘Second Life’ slightly skeptical. Is this real, I wondered. Are we there yet?

1. AI ART – THE LOW-HANGING FRUIT WITH WEIRD, FUZZY SKIN

I had checked out the app called Starryai (which I wrote about in a Substack newsletter.) So, for my second attempt, I called up the algorithms on Dall.E to see if this fancy pants tool could design a magazine cover. Like WIRED.

The prompt that I typed, into Dall.E, was: “WIRED magazine cover with Dall.E.”

Could it ‘design’ a cover of tech magazine, using itself (Dall.E) in the title? Was it capable of reflecting on itself?

I was margially impressed. Marginally. In other words, not terribly. Sure, the graphics were overly arty as WIRED occasionally tries to be. Dall.E gets the look right, but the details are so bloody amateurish, even clumsy. It doesn’t seem to handle white space, or understand how to mimic a masthead. The fonts are a joke!

2. AI WRITING – NOTHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT

I teach creative writing in all my classes. Naturally I’ve been intrigued, and even alarmed by how the talk about how AI could write like a human. Many people are hailing this as the death-knell for flesh-and-bone writers, journalists etc. Some tear their hair out about plagiarism in schools.

 The Nieman Lab is a bit more circumspect:

“While ChatGPT won’t win any journalism awards (at least for now), it can certainly automate much of the long tail of content on the internet.” — Nieman Lab, Predictions for Journalism in 2023

I checked out an application on the ChatGPT platform known as OpenAI that some people have told me can write fairly convincing content. I was suspicious. I had read a piece by a marketing writer, Mitch Joel about this. To check how smart this AI could be I typed in this snarky prompt: “Is Mitch Joel right about AI platforms.”

I wanted to see if this ghost in the machine was savvy enough to pick up his argument and reference it. As I guessed, it didn’t live up to my expectations. In fact, the software apologized for its inability to do more than explain what Mitch does for a living, and went on to explain how these are still early days! (Brownie points OpenAI for admitting you don’t know what you don’t know.) While it got the paragraphs and punctuation nicely. The second ‘graph was a doozy. Like a lazy copywriter churning out some garbage just to fill a layout to impress a client.

The website sets our expectations, in fact, saying things like, “ChatGPT sometimes writes plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers.” Hmm!

Having said that, others are raving about AI content generators like Jasper. It’s supposed to be a boon for copywriters, social media posts and SEO content.

HERE’S MY TAKE ON AI. Content creators of the world —authors, journalists, copywriters, podcasters —shouldn’t feel threatened. For now. Good copywriters don’t sit at a desk stringing clichés to adjectives. They walk the factory floor, sit through plans board meetings, and argue with brand managers before the concept emerges. Translated: They produce content, rather than regurgitate it. Translated again: The fruits of AI are tempting but aren’t ready to pluck. Even for students. Low-hanging fruit – tempting but bland. Sometimes filled with bugs.

ChatGPT says it is addressing this. It’s like saying Samuel Bankman-Fried has declared he is making sure there aren’t any more crypto scams.

Are we concerned? As teachers, yes. Plagiarism is something no school takes lightly, if only because we want students to discover the value of originality, and creativity. It’s what will benefit them in any career. How about you?

When their ‘Privacy Policy’ sucks. What do you do?

Image, courtesy Michael Geiger on Unsplash

Let’s see what you make of this privacy statement. You’ve probably clicked on hundreds of similar ones and never cared to read them. Beware! Many companies count on you doing just that, so they pack all kinds of double-speak into it. You’re basically giving away the farm, and provide them with a legal defense to spy on you.

When you visit our websites, use our apps, read our emails or otherwise engage with us, we may automatically collect certain information about your device through a variety of technologies, including cookies, web beacons, log files, embedded scripts, location-identifying technologies, or other tracking/recording tools (collectively, “Tracking Technologies”), and we may combine this information with other personal information we collect about you.

Do most of us know – or care – about ‘web beacons’ or scripts? Here’s how Wikipedia authors define a web beacon:

“It is software used “to unobtrusively (usually invisibly) allow checking that a user has accessed some content.[1] Web beacons are typically used by third parties to monitor the activity of users at a website for the purpose of web analytics or page tagging.[2] They can also be used for email tracking.[3

Basically spyware we agree to have on our devices. Consider this statement: “With your permission, we may also access your photo or camera roll.” Wow! Those plots in espionage movies about someone remotely turning on a camera or accessing images from a phone’s camera folder isn’t the stuff of dystopian fiction, is it?

As always, it starts with an innocuous statement.

I was a bit shocked to see that the privacy policy in question went on to state that “We take your privacy as seriously as you do, and we are committed to protecting it.” In other words, they do want to secure our privacy; we have the right to opt-out of certain data being collected. But……If we object to any of the changes to the policy, we “must cease using our Products and/or Services, and may request us to erase your personal information.” Which is neither here nor there.

There’s only one cure for this invasion of privacy disease. Delete the app, for heaven’s sake. It’s not really free.

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The above excerpt of a Privacy Policy is from a company whose app I used when my daughter began driving. It’s a terrible surveillance tool. The company will not be named but you probably know who it is.

The disinformation virus, here to stay.

I have to admit, I am a terrible skeptic when it comes to what people share on our networks.

I’m especially weary of what sails through WhatsApp. Are you? I belong to just four groups but I bet you subscribe to more. I often delete those memes and videos labeled ‘shared many times.’ Which means I have to either opt out of the network (and miss a grand aunt’s anniversary, and family pudding recipe) or put up with the drivel. One grins and bears it! But disinformation is much more than repetitive noise.

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AS FOR MY GRUMPY SKEPTICISM, I put it down to my having once worked in marketing. Or being a secret fan of that 1974 book by Wilson Bryant Key, Subliminal Seduction. It accused advertisers of secretly painting seductive shapes into ice cubes. Conspiracy theory isn’t new! I scoffed, but it made me look deeper into the psychology of marketing and media.

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Sometimes I feel like a retired MI6 agent, looking for hidden meaning and toxic residue in everything we are served on our pixel platters. And I don’t just mean ice cubes. (Hey, just for larks, and speaking of things made of ice, did you know that the Baskin Robbins logo hides in plain sight the number 31 to represent its different flavors? OK, not sneaky, but interesting.)

And then there’s disinformation.

I bring up dis– and mis-information a lot in my classes. Is the headline clickbait? Or is it simply stating a fact? “Has the photograph on the cover of a book been doctored? For what reasons?”  

Reminding students to ‘trust but verify’ is a good practice for all teachers. But even more so these days, when young people are being strafed by much more nonsense than we were on any given day. Memes, for instance — with double toppings of satire and sarcasm — have become the conveyor belt of what passes for ‘news’ through TikTok. But they are also being exploited to transmit conspiracy theories, and racism, as this piece in The New York Times recently put it. 

 In the US, we are in the midst of the cacophony aka midterm elections. If I stack the political pamphlets that arrive in my mailbox end to end, they could circle my property. Twice. A new variant of this virus is the fake newspaper. Take these two that arrived in my mailbox last week. It’s an insult to even call these newspapers. NPR calls them zombie newspapers. 

One of them could not even get the headline to not bleed off into the column divider. The quality of the photos (one even gave photo credit to Wikipedia!) looks as if they were printed on a dot-matrix printer someone had dug up in their attic. One pretended to be a Catholic newspaper, The Arizona Catholic Tribune; the other was called Grand Canyon Times. Both had the same subtitle under the masthead: Real Data. Real Value. Real News. What were they thinking? Couldn’t the ‘editors’ even properly disguise the fact that one was a clone of the other, with a different web address?

Speaking of which, the fake newspaper websites (ha!) were a dead giveaway. Using a simple Whois search I traced the latter to an organization called Epik Holdings that is listed under a Wikipedia entry as a registrar of websites operated by neo-Nazi and extremist groups. So much for the ‘media’ we have to deal with now. Makes me want to address disinformation right through the year!

What my students and I learned from a live podcast experiment.

To cut to the chase – I loved it!

Now for the rest of the story. Podcasting is nothing more than a person with a mic and a story well told. But, on a production level, it could get complicated when you add stuff like a ‘DAW’ or a digital audio workstation – a fancy term for a recording and editing software. Or multiple guests.

I love the spontaneity of podcasting, letting guests be themselves, warts and all. Yet I like to edit much; tighten things up, with intros, outros, multiple tracks for voices, and occasional sound effects etc. I use Hindenburg Pro for a bulk of the work, and Anchor.fm to upload the finished product to Apple Podcasts, Spotify and the likes.

The more ‘guests’ you have, the complexity ramps up. There’s overlapping audio when someone occasionally talks over another (a good thing?), bloopers that could be left in –and sometimes should – but at the expense of duration of the podcast. And sound levels to adjust, especially if you have a mic that allows for switching between cardioid (for voices directly in front), and omnidirectional. When I have forgotten to switch modes, the results have been…meh!

Some history here: There was a time, c. 2011, I when Derrick Mains and I hosted a radio show out of Phoenix we called Your3BL (listen here!) which stood for ‘Your Triple Bottom Line.’ It was out of KFNX studios hidden away in a nondescript strip mall. The man behind the glass did all the mixing and sound balancing, so it was pretty easy for us hosts. But Derrick and I liked to shake things up a bit now and then. Sometimes, we recorded the show elsewhere. Like one at Gangplank, a co-working space. There was a time I hosted it on a laptop in a classroom at Clark University in Boston with Derrick in Phoenix. We called in, through a dedicated phone line to the studio. That was one of the ‘live’ events that stretched my capabilities, but the recording taught me a lot about podcast production.

Recently I decided to interview two guests in school, and thought of upping the ante a bit. We recorded it in the gymnasium. That’s asking for trouble, if you know something about the cathedral-acoustics in a gym. Especially, when it’s the first time.

I wanted the acoustics to feel like it was a large space. Then there was the fact that we had two audiences: the ones in front of us, and the ones who would listen to the recording. The student audience in the bleachers came through loud and clear, cheering wildly when our two guests were introduced. But would the recording pick up the exuberance? To compensate, I had a back-up recorder on the desk, my trusty ZoomH4N Pro. I could grab that feed if I needed in editing. There was also a video camera at the back of the gym, hooked to a wireless lavalier mic which I placed next to our guests. This and the desk mic were plugged it in through the Scarlett Focusrite mixer. (That video mic feed came handy in editing, since one of our guests, an awesome pianist, played the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean which overpowered the desk mic. I was able to splice the better audio in later.)

You learn something! Like wishing I had two clip-on mics for the guests. I know, overkill! Or testing sound levels in the vast space before the real thing.

As for our guests, they were freshmen Reina Ley and Landon Madsen. A few weeks before, (Sept 2022), Reina had auditioned on NBC’s The Voice.  That same month, Landon, the pianist, had given a stunning performance at our talent show, Franklin’s Got Talent. The podcast were were recording, was a way to celebrate our student’s achievements, as we often do during morning assembly. Moments like this not only memorialize these particular achievements, they reveal something about all our students. The often unspoken talent hurrying through these hallways, toting trombones, football gear, trifolds, and other paraphernalia.

Here’s where the learning gets more interesting. This experiment in podcasting doubled up as an assignment for students in my class on Writing and Publishing in the Digital Age. I got them to help me set up the hardware in the gym. They were the ones manning the video camera, and doing the sound checks. Another was the photojournalist, with a regular camera. After fall break, these students will take this video feed and turn it into a news story, worthy of television. We have practiced with a green screen, so there will be an anchor, a reporter on the scene etc. Who knows where this will go! This, to me is what makes learning more hands-on, and lets them apply the theory of storytelling to real work they could publish (On Medium, the class website, and elsewhere) and see their output. Next month, they will be recording mock political debates in a history class, and produce a newspaper with many of these stories.

They, like me, love the challenge. After all, much of this (and the podcast) takes place in the Computer Lab. I remind my students, ad nauseam, it’s after all a ‘lab’ –where we are supposed to experiment!

Mansplaining spinfluencers I know diddly-squat about.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I may sound like a panjandrum (a word that rear-ended me the other day) because I’m not a huge fan of neologisms. Some of these recent words seem to be arriving by the truckload. It’s one thing to say ‘nonversation’ and ‘hangry’ — at least they mean what they sound like. But when did staycation and mansplaining become OK? Who comes up with this stuff? The Atlantic ran a piece that sheds some light on it.

There was a time when we had to explain (geeksplain?) what webinars, and dongles, and hashtags were. [Webinar, let’s face it, is a horrible word that should have been excommunicated with words like optics and more recent ones like spreadneck. Never heard of the latter? I’m glad.]

As for that Dongle? This was the name for that device you had to stick into your computer when you needed Internet access abroad. What an obtuse word! Hotspots probably severed our connections with the dongle world. We have other things we still plunge into our ports: thumb drives, also known as flash drive, USB drives, or stick drives.

Did you know that smellifungus is not what it sounds like? It would be perfect for describing the bacterial residue in your gym socks, but unfortunately it describes a person — a super-annoying whiner who bickers about inconsequential things. It’s female equivalent is someone social media labels a Karen.

Language, you see, is a collywobble, especially across the culturescape of english language speakers. We make things up — and repeat them — as we go. A breve, served at coffee shops in Tempe, Arizona could mean nothing to a tea drinker in Haputale, Sri Lanka which serves delicious kahata — a word that could flummox any tea drinker in Kensington palace, whether or not she uses the word flummox, which showed up in Tolkien.

Neologisms like kerplunk and digerati are all over the place. I recently heard that based is supposed to mean what teenagers in the Grease era considered cool. My daughter tells me that she abhors the term spinfluencers which is a subset of influencers, that wacky Insta label for people once known as ‘thought leaders.’) WIRED just ran a cover story on micro-influencers, and nano-influencers, so there may be a whole new species out there about whom I know diddly-squat.

By the way, panjandrum is one of those delightful made-up words from 1755 with a humorous origin. Webster’s best explains it here.

This story was also posted to Medium.com

Blurry borders and authors who cross the line.

Sometimes, it’s the border that crosses us.

Photo by Imre Tömösvári on Unsplash

Salman Rushdie knows a lot about borders. His books explore the concept of borders; he’s lived them. The recent knife attack on Rushdie in New York reminded us that — to paraphrase the author — we don’t cross borders; sometimes it’s the border that crosses us.

On a side note, I featured Rushdie’s other classic, Midnight’s Children, in a podcast about writing, if you’re interested. I met Rushdie at an event in California in 2004. He had just published a book, a collection of stories and essays, titled ‘Step across this line.

Borders are funny things. Just lines on the map, arbitrary, contestable, often inconvenient. Dotted lines that someone drew, and the rest of us are asked to observe. A canal here, a fence there, a dried up river bed, a train station. What happens to us when we step across one of these lines? First, nothing. Twenty feet this way, or that, nothing seems very different. Cactus spikes glowing in the strobe light on a truck. Barbed wire. Plastic bags billowing like ulcers on neglected shrubs. I’ve seen my share.

‎Listen to “Step Across This Border” On Apple Podcasts: podcasts.apple.com

I recall a border crossing on a train between Germany to Czechoslovakia as it was then called. Border guards in trench coats with heavy guns tapped on our compartment. Routine passport check. Very intimidating. Especially late at night when you didn’t know exactly where –meaning which side of the border — you were.

The reality is, once you cross, you are now in a different jurisdiction subject to new laws whether its speed limits or what you might have in your carry-on. People across the ‘line’ always seem to notice you are different. The way you hold up your head, your dress, your accent.

I’m not sure if this is your experience but scary border guards notwithstanding, there’s something else at work. People on the other side tend to be folks welcoming of strangers. Perhaps (a) they were once in your shoes, with no carry-on bag; (b) you are a curiosity that adds color — currency even — to their humdrum existence; (c) human beings are born to be social animals. Sure, I’m being optimistic. But at least it used to be that way.

It’s not just them. Something else happens to you. Inside. You feel the need to assimilate. To not suck up too much oxygen. To appreciate otherness. To not be the obnoxious tourist.

Any immigrant knows first hand. As a foreign student in London, my buddies were from Malta, Fiji, Seychelles, and Ethiopia. They had crossed many borders to get there. When we crossed into Northern Ireland, a region that was violently fighting the British at that time in the 1980s, there were a new set of borders to consider, even while we were technically in the same country. To say it was tense, even for our English chaperones is to put it mildly. Especially the part known as ‘Free Derry’ where fierce battles had once raged. (Remember that term ‘Bloody Sunday’?) But even in that porous border, we could walk through like locals because the locals seemed to want to have us there. At night, we could hear on radio that IRA bombs went off in the area where we were, a few blocks away.

I still think about borders, but now in a different light. Despite our accents, and varying skin colors, the borders we cross don’t have to get between us. For those of you too young to remember, Rushdie ruffled feathers. Apart from the geographical borders he crisscrossed, he crossed a line — someone’s line in the sand –when he published a book, Satanic Verses in 1998. The regime in Iran considered the book blasphemy and promptly issued a global death threat or ‘fatwa’ against him.

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So my question to you is, what borders, what lines might you have crossed in the past few months? At school in our daily morning assembly we call ‘Opening Ceremony’ our hosts often bring up topics like this. Inclusiveness. A tough value to put into practice. It’s such a cliche now to even say the world is more divided now. Especially when you consider that it’s some 50 years after the Internet sold us on the promise to unite us. There are new borders people draw around themselves. To paraphrase another Opening Ceremony host, instead of defining our borders, we could be creating and expanding ‘circles of influence.’

Why are vinyl albums so cool again?

Old tech fulfils three needs we are denied of in a digital world.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

A few weeks back, I stopped by at a thrift store. An inexplicable gravitational force pulled towards the vinyl album section. Vinyl! The technology that was birthed soon after the invention of the light bulb. It’s fans seem to be on the rise. (I am fully aware that my vinyl album taste puts a date-stamp on my age: Engelbert Humperdinck for instance, and Olivia Newton John.)

This imperfect, scratchy sound of music has found its way back into our lives — like the Polaroid cameras. Or the music of Queen. When I was a teenager we sang along to the anthem-like lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody. Today my 12- and 13- year old’s know every word of it. So my question is: why are old media formats so indestructible? Why, for example, hasn’t vinyl gone the way of, say, fax machines? Why do Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish release albums on records even while everything else is drawn to streaming platforms? I’m really, really perplexed about this.

I am looking for answers because in my writing and publishing class, a discussion of platforms and formats comes up a lot — something writers must keep their eye on because their audience preferences will always change, sometimes faster than they can keep up with. How might the content be consumed? Songwriters and poets, authors and podcasters, videographers, script writers, and web designers have to be one step ahead of the game. Remember how Prince wrestled with not just copyright, but distribution of his music?

My appetite for vinyl was whetted after I picked up a old record player at Bookman’s. It’s one of those suitcase-type players with a built-in speaker that can fill a room quite well no matter how squirrelly the track is. The Humperdinck double album was a steal!

Humperdinck has an interesting backstory that I refer to in my podcast below, if you’re interested. (You can also listen to a few tracks from Grease and Queen!)

This pull toward older technologies is larger than the music industry. I wanted to dig a bit deeper into this so I asked some of my colleagues about the ‘ancient’ technologies they use in that classroom and elsewhere. Don Meyer, my colleague who teaches British lit, said that he recently found cassette tapes of Macbeth were indispensable. Cassettes, for goodness sakes! Mrs. Walters, reminded me of one of the technologies that will probably never become extinct: The textbook. Duh!

So, here are three reasons old tech doesn’t have an expiry date? It is reliable. It is often fixable. And it’s available despite it being relegated to the old school. To the last point, fortunately it’s possible to find almost anything out of circulation on eBay. Including typewriter ribbons, film rolls, and those cassette tapes of Macbeth, starring Sir Alec Guinness. But I’d first go to the thrift store, because you never know what might show up in the vinyl section.

Here’s a fun fact: I’ve got a Corona typewriter in my class — a computer lab with 39 PCs. You should see students line up to use it!

Big Brother Is… Teaching You?

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

A week ago, I asked if I could be a fly on the wall of a ‘simulation’ in Totalitarianism. It was a different way of teaching a unit of history. I really didn’t know what to expect other than what some of my students had described. They seemed all fired up by the fact that it was a simulation, and others had a few choice things to say about totalitarianism.

The teacher, Mr. Greer, began the class by asking his ‘party’ members to report on the citizens, who sat in rows, in true Orwellian fashion. They comprised a Clothing Officer, Lunch Officer, Education Officer and Propaganda Officer. Some students had been recruited to play the roles of snitches and spies. The other hapless citizens lost points for smiling, or for not standing up when addressing him. They had to defend themselves about the food they had at lunch or the color of clothing they did not wear to conform to that day. On one occasion, when a student was accused of a ‘thought crime’ there’s an audible gasp in the room. Luckily I had taken my recorder.

In the podcast of this class, you’ll hear ‘Chairman Greer’ do what, well, totalitarian leaders do: behave erratically, and throw people off balance. The students, however, loved it! As one student pointed to me, “If you don’t experience it, you don’t really learn anything!” Yeah, right, my teacher mind went. I hate PowerPoints as much as the next fellow, and students have had enough of it. No wonder simulations are dope, to use their expression.

Indeed, inside this ‘simulation,’ it didn’t feel like a classroom at all. It felt like theater. Made me think: This is the kind of education you sell tickets to attend. If only we could implement that model more!

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A longer version of this article could be found at Medium.com

Yes, there’s an ROI for podcasting! 

Hosts of my new podcast, Trinity Wright and Christina Dressel

The podcasting bug bit me 12 years ago when I worked in Marcom, in the heady days of blogging and podcasting. More recently, after I got back into it, my podcasts have been about the intersection of education and tech. Topics I teach in class. It’s a fun work/hobby if only because I learn so much on the job. And the ROI is not what I expected.

Consider how one interviews people. It’s different from how you might grill someone, or conduct a focus group. You’re not a ‘reporter’ although you are acting like a conduit for an audience whom the guest/interviewee does not see. Your questions are your software. Hardware could vary. [A Zoom H4N podcasting recorder I carried made people nervous; some said it looked like a Taser.]

In the past year I have learned so much. Like how to use a lavalier mic plugged into a laptop so it records directly to Hindenburg, or, if I’m in a rush, to Audacity or Anchor. I’ve discovered the value of an XLR cable, as opposed to USB in microphones. My ‘studio’ is always an empty classroom, even if means dodging the announcements on the PA system since there’s no soundproofed room — yet. This learning curve has also helped me add audio-recording into the curriculum for my Writing & Publishing class at Benjamin Franklin High School.

But in the past few months I began producing another podcast for the school. The podcast, ‘Fully Charged,’ has two hosts who between them have plenty of terrific topics: student achievement, counseling, history, and classical education. The first podcast (below) is about mental health, and stress.

Is AI a Friend Or Foe? – Episode #13 Fully Charged

We're taking on a crazy important topic of AI. It's the part of AI that you've been hearing in the news (or soon will) that's affecting not only all school, but also the entire world. I', Ms. Wright, and my two guests are Ms. Mateski  from the English department and Dr. Collings from the science department. Both serve on the academic team which I am also part of.  Specifically, we're talking about content generation or automation using an app called ChatGPT, which for now is free. It's terrifying, or empowering, depending on  which side of the spectrum you approach it. It brings up the eternal issues of copyright and plagiarism, but also creativity and automation. We know you'll enjoy this show!
  1. Is AI a Friend Or Foe? – Episode #13
  2. An Assistant Principal and a Senior walk up to a mic – Episode 12
  3. Trailer to Episode 12 – The VP and the Senior
  4. What's Up Doc? – Episode 11
  5. Show Stoppers at Benjamin Franklin High School – Episode 10

Also available on Apple podcasts, Spotify and wherever you get your podcasts

I SOON LEARNED THAT producing a show for someone else comes with its own challenges. Hardware and software notwithstanding (one mic or two?) getting two hosts into a room is more complicated than it might seem. Planning a show topic ahead of time is another. Teacher’s, after all have plenty on their plate with lesson plans et al. We now need an ‘editorial calendar’ so the topics are fresh, even though we record them ahead of time. Like milk, any topic does come with an expiration date which creeps up on you.

I need to help the hosts loosen up and feel like they are having a conversation. A classroom setting puts a cramp on this; after all, it’s where students come for ‘lessons’ — and a podcast should be an experience not a lesson. As Evo Terra reminds us, it is a one-to-one experience between one’s ears. A podcast may seem like a show but it is really not a performance. There can’t be cue cards or scripts, or memorized lines, or perfect monologues. On the other hand, winging it, won’t work. The hosts make mistakes; many times, the ums and aahs have to be left in.

AS FOR PRODUCTION, AND EDITING, yes there’s lots of this. But I found most of my production time involves keeping the podcast tight and focused, rather than perfect. As a podcast listener I like the pace to be quick, the content jam packed; the takeaways memorable. So as a podcast producer I’m conscious of this. Our listener — a student — has to juggle a podcast between homework, chores, a football game, dance rehearsals, siblings, and social media. He or she gives us the benefit of their time, so we need to respect that.

INTERESTINGLY, THESE LESSONS spill over into how I handle a classroom. Sure, the students are a captive audience in class, here from ‘bell to bell.’ But like a podcast I have to make sure the pace is clipped, jam-packed with useful takeaways. We don’t have music segues in a class lesson; (some use ‘anticipatory sets.’) But we could use smooth transitions that connect the dots. We don’t need to TED Talk our way through 50 minutes of a class period, but we could use cuts and transitions to keep students on the edge of their seats.

Podcasting and teaching have more in common than I once thought. I don’t need a ‘Taser’ for the latter — just give me a dry-erase marker.

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Fun fact: A podcast I had produced in 2009 (when I worked at Decision Theater, at Arizona State University) was about pandemic planning. It’s over here, if you’re curious.

History is unavoidable these days in the classroom.

How I paused my lesson plan to address the war.

Photo by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash

Last week, I paused my lesson plan for a moment to address the war. My high school students (in a Writing & Publishing elective) had discussed a recent book, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis. “Does this current crisis with the invasion of Ukraine seem like the next world war?” I asked them. I felt it was bizarre to go on with life, editing videos and writing stories as if this wasn’t happening. War is not always someone else’s problem, I added. In a globally connected world, especially in a world with hyper-connected media, it’s not something just happening ‘over there.’

Which led me to lean on a set of documents from Brown University’s Choices program. It’s got excellent discussion topics, and handouts like this for teaching with the news. I had them read the backgrounder, and analyze political cartoons for labels, symbolism analogy, irony, exaggeration and stereotyping. When you’re writing for the digital world today, you have to take into account the many facets of media — from Tik-Tok, and memes, to cartoons, which have served editorial purposes for as long as newspapers have been around.

Courtesy, US San Diego: https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb65537764/zoom/0

Political cartoons have a long legacy. There was Dr. Seuss, whose work included anti-fascist cartoons about Hitler and the rise of Nazism. There were those by Jerry Costello (‘Feeling the pinch’), and those like Punch cartoonist, Fougasse (Careless talk costs lives) who worked for the British ministry of information. Cartoonists, like writers are also journalists of a different caliber. The writer has a rectangle called a column. The cartoonist has a rectangle called a strip. Both must pack meaning into them.

Analyzing history through texts and events requires critical thinking. My colleague who teachers history class described how he was tremendously proud of how his students handled the discussion of the war in Ukraine. I’ll cite his description from a commentary he wrote in a school newsletter last week.

“Something marvelous happened in my classroom last week. Something that I have been waiting for my students to do the entire year. My traditional history class is going over American Imperialism right now, and the subject came up of when Americans should intervene in the affairs of another country. The class was saying what they believed I wanted to hear, namely “Mr. Klicker, this is a horrible thing that is happening, but that doesn’t mean we throw American lives away”. It was good, but their hearts weren’t in it. They were just saying words without any conviction behind them. So I decided to have a little fun. I was going to ‘poke the bear’ and see what I came up with.

“Well by THAT logic, class, I guess you would have stood by and let Hitler and the rest of the Nazis conquer Europe and complete the Holocaust!”

Normally, they just sit their in shock at the fact that I accused of being Nazis, or perhaps they’ll roll their eyes if they’re feeling especially sarcastic. But miraculously, for the first time all year, I heard the words I’ve been waiting to hear:

“Mr. Klicker!” one girl said, rolling both her head and her eyes at me, “You know that’s not true! You always do this and I’m tired of sitting here and taking it! This is way more complicated than that!”

He goes on to say that in a history class, it is far more important that he teaches them to stand up for their beliefs (even when they are attacked) instead of making sure they memorize all of the names and dates. He recognizes that critical thinking is a difficult thing to do — made even more difficult when called to disagree with a person you are supposed to admire and respect. “We have forgotten how to debate,” he says, “to stand up for ourselves and have conviction in our beliefs even when everyone else is telling us to stand down.”

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There are plenty of resources for fostering civil discourse in the class room. In times like this, no matter what the subject matter, we have to address the moment in which the lesson is taught. I’ll leave you with two resources. These are guaranteed to start a great discussion in class:

1. People, including children, are singing inside bomb shelters to raise morale. Worth watching this. Why are these images of war so radially different to what might be on cable news, or on social media?

2. A story of an Ukrainian vlogger, Volodymyr Zolkin, who takes it upon himself to call up, randomly, people in Russia, and provide them with a different type of news. Read about it here, in the New Yorker.