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

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.

Ignoring education is business as usual. Building ‘ghost schools’? That’s foreign policy.

                                                     Photo by Yves Alarie on Unsplash

It’s so normal to put education on the back burner, it’s hardly news. You hear this from most teachers in many parts of the world. Governments always have bigger fish to fry – fighting nation states through proxy wars, purchasing fighter jets, for instance.

Many years ago –nearly 14 years in fact– I wrote about a new blog begun by the US State Department in its attempt to be more transparent.  Field officers wrote about their work in countries like the Sudan and Afghanistan. Dipnote, as it was called was a breath of fresh air. But that hope was quickly dashed. Subsequent administrations lost the plot. What’s all this got to do with education?

Consider the story of ‘ghost schools’ by Buzzfeed News reporter Azmat Khan. Building schools in a country torn apart gave the US nice little project to look like it was doing some nation building in Afghanistan. Until it was discovered that this was money spent in vain. Ghost schools is a powerful metaphor of smoke and mirrors. And while the US was doing this, teachers in the US were working in poorly funded schools, many in trailers known as ‘portables.’ Students, likewise were struggling to juggle two jobs and school during the pandemic. It’s as if we raided our own country to use the funds to destroy another, and then rebuild what we broke. Here’s a disturbing comparison: Upgrading US public school facilities needs almost $200 billion according to the US department of education. An F-35 fighter plane costs $36,000 per hour. Per hour! All this while there’s a lot of hand-wringing when it comes to paying a teacher more than, say, $45,000 a year.

Put those two numbers on a slide and show it at your next community meeting.

So what’s my point? Since they can’t get foreign policy right, it’s time channeling some of those funds to domestic policy.

All this jargon gets me woke

There was a time when words like ‘grok‘ made me cringe. This was at the height of the social media frenzy, when everyone and their brother was jostling to get onto Facebook, asking “What’s Facebook anyway?” Grok? If you have no idea what this means, never mind. It still makes me cringe.

So a few weeks back I recorded a podcast about tech jargon, a topic close to my heart. Two reasons.

1, Technology is turning us into bots, and before we begin speaking like Siri, it’s time to raise the red flag. We teachers demand clarity; we whip out the red marker no sooner we spot clichés. Or redundancies. Or words that we don’t grok.

2. I wanted to keep up the podcast momentum during summer, as I was testing a new app and using my recorder with a new mic. I plan to use it in class when we get back to school – tomorrow.

HERE’S THE THING. All of us – yes we the grown-ups – let slivers of jargon fall into everyday word salads we call lectures. When I catch myself in jargonizing mode, I pause, apologize to my students and move on. 

Which is what this episode is all about. Hope you like it. It’s just 12 minutes. Tell me what you think, please.

Born storyteller. My Dad.

He would have been 101 today.

I once knew the master of yarns. His stories entertained us, and scared us as children. For a few days we would look under our camp cots before we went to bed. They next day, however, we would plead for more and he would spin another just like that. He was my father. Born storyteller, he. A troubadour sans guitar who taught me the power of story. Today, which would have been his 101st birthday.

A public school teacher, He taught History, Latin, and English Lit and potentially impacted thousands of students in Sri Lanka. They, like me, had stories to tell about him. Some wrote to me about them on his passing 15 years ago. My cousins, today recounted a few of them. Like the time he would ask them a riddle narrating the first few lines of a strange poem about a motor bus with a Latin phrases (such as “Indicat Motorem Bum”). They had no clue what it meant. Neither did I growing up. I looked it up and Motor Bus turns out to be a poem by an Oxford scholar who made puns out of Latin declensions, probably to make a point of the Latin roots of English. Listen to it here. Was that Dadda’s sneaky way of getting us to pay more attention to the English language we took for granted?

He left me a notebook with my name on the inside page, above which was a quote, “We must row with the oars we have.” This was a time when there were no blank journals, so he used the pages of a 1962 diary. It was filled with quotes like the ones below, and others by George Elliot, Nehru, Aristotle, and from Ecclesiastes.

In a post wrote last year, I explained how so many sat in his ‘class’ — neighbors, nieces and nephews, Catholic and Buddhist priests, and even vendors who had heard of the iskola-mahathaya down the road. They came to him for help with essays, debates, and job applications. I didn’t know until today that he had tutored a cousin’s fiancé in O’Level Sinhala, another on E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, and Shakespeare’s Othello; another won a world history prize with his tutoring. There are probably hundreds more my brother and I will never know about.

Joe Fernando was more than a teacher. A larger-than-life character who played Tennis, was a member of the Cursillo movement, and much, much more. I don’t think he realized what a legacy he left behind. Or how the stories he infected us with live on. Happy Birthday, Dadda.

Storytellers with face coverings

Tony Arkani, a sprightly junior has the gift of biting repartee that cuts through a slab of high school cynicism. Tony, by the way, isn’t his real name. (I mistakenly called him that on the first day of class; he didn’t mind.) His other essential ingredient is a self-deprecating humor which comes handy when he weighs in on issues where he expects push-back: racism, face masks, privacy. Each morning Tony sits propped up against my classroom wall waiting for me to open the door. It’s barely 6:30 am. He’s on a roll. His gangly feet protrude into the hallway, but its his acerbic comments lobbed at barely woken-up teenagers that stop them in their tracks. A few set down their overstuffed backpacks to join the conversation.

Photo by Janine Robinson on Unsplash

This linguistic flamethrower is just one of the students who signed up for my elective class on Writing and Publishing this year. Other high schools have classes in Tech Writing, or Fiction. The broad scope of W&P resonated with students like Tony, and his classmate in whose veins run bits of Chaucer and Comedy Central, and even New Girl. The work of Atul Gawande, an endocrine surgeon-writer, and Kacey Musgraves, songwriter, resonate with them.

I once told this class I wish I had had such imaginative minds to work with back in the day when I worked in advertising, hunting for creativity. Fast forward thirty years, these are born story-tellers who take to plot and story arcs as effortlessly as they deconstruct memes and imbibe TikToks. It gives me a reason to wake up each morning, knowing there’ll be a fresh batch of creativity to be put in the blender.

To put a time stamp on this, it was a class that began in the middle of COVID when school superintendents were trying to balance students’ well being and academic achievement. Would a return to in-person school trigger a longer shut down? No one has the perfect recipe. But one thing I do know is that these storytellers with face coverings soon proved to us that our kids, despite six feet of separation and rigorous sanitization, were bursting with energy — something I wrote about earlier.

Given this kind of raw material we just might we see a new batch of thought leaders, creative policymakers, poets, screenwriters, scientists, and entrepreneurs. From my perspective at least, they have already shown their hand. One student has a podcast and a YouTube channel. Another, who works part-time at Taco Bell, is working on a George Lucas-ish manuscript — a series of 15 books, with prequels. Seriously! Tony also has a one in the works, too, involving ‘islands’ populated by ‘Orixens,’ ‘Fades,’ and creatures called ‘Voidwalkers.’ They remind me of characters in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra. A year ago during the height of school lockdowns he pitched the idea of starting a mythical country he calls New Arkansas. He’s now recruiting ‘citizens’, has written up an elaborate constitution, designed a court of arms, and for an assignment in this class, created a podcast about it. Here, take a listen:

As they wrapped up their final assignment, I heard Tony mumble, “I wish I could retake this elective next year!” To which I responded, “You’d be bored.” I lied. These students who spar with him in the hallways seem to have exorcized the boredom gene that drops in on teenagers.

We shouldn’t let these storytellers out without tapping into these inner dynamos. If we fail them, we risk sacrificing them as underpaid drones in some Amazon-like warehouse. We desperately need the next C.S. Lewis, Erik Larson, and George Orwell.

This story appeared on Medium.com

Now on Spotify, my education podcasts

Recording a podcast is the easy part. Editing it however, takes a lot of time. Especially when you record segments separately. Or when the Wifi goes down for a few minutes, as it did for a recording of this episode of The Mayflower Files. My guest was on Google Meet. We had to recap the lost moment and move on.

It also took some back-end fiddling around to get these podcasts on a few networks. So it was gratifying to see this confirmed a few weeks back. RadioLab 201 is now on Spotify, and Apple Podcasts as well.

As Jake Carlson, one of the guest speakers (who’s been podcasting since 2014) told my class, “Everything is Figureoutable.” He was candid the speed bumps he ran into when he got started, and what it took to get comfortable in front of a mic. When I record the podcasts, I have to content with several factors – people walking into the Lab, sound over the school PA system for instance.

I have mentioned this before. I used to have a podcast in 2009, while at Arizona State University. I hit a long pause, and now, partly because of the class I teach, podcasting is back.

Start a ‘little’ Library, side effects may vary.

You never know what the unintended consequences might be when you begin a ‘Little Free Library.’ A library in school is not as frequented as, say, the gym or football field. Even a vending machine gets more traffic than a bookshelf. That’s reality.

But hold on – there is a surprise outcome to this story.

After we installed our first Little Free Library unit in 2019 I sensed a slight uptick in reading. Though my classroom is a computer lab, we discuss literature; reading is a given. Books have not been replaced by technology. My shelves are stacked with copies of WIRED, and The New Yorker. (One book on my shelf, Eats, Shoots and Leaves helps start a discussion on good grammar and punctuation. Then there’s no escaping Orwell’s ‘1984‘ when discussing privacy or surveillance. But I digress.)

Today, we launched the outdoor ‘Little Free Library’ with two of my former students who kicked off the project, invited to install the name plate of the library’s Charter number – It’s 111423. Meaning ours is now on the library network map – as you will see here.

The Writer’s Club was on hand. This new club will act as its custodians. It’s another example of the explosion of interest in reading and writing, despite an annus horribilis we went through, which made school so complicated. They kicked off the club in January and they’re already writing and sharing fiction. These kids are now reading like crazy!

I teach a Writing and Publishing elective as well so it’s really gratifying. Sorry to burst your despondent bubble, ‘Death of Reading’ Op-Ed writers. If you walk into my school where cellphones are banned, you may see young people bowing their heads –to a page, not a screen.

As I said, with books, side effects may vary!

Digital Learning Day – Flashback 2017

As Digital Learning Day came around in February I wondered if the distinction between digital and non-digital even exists.

I am old enough to remember when we actually celebrated an annual event called E-Day here in Phoenix, as part of the IABC. In the early 2000s, Business Communication then was pretty much analog, with smatterings of digital. Soon E-Day became passé.

Just seven years ago –a long time in Internet years! -at Salt River Elementary School, STEM had pushed its way through the door. Ed-Tech was a buzzword, as was digital learning. In my computer lab I was introducing students to Mars exploration, Robotics, VR and 3D Printing. With tremendous support from my colleagues at Salt River Elementary, Mrs. Decker, Mrs. Yurek, and Mr. Filhart –from Music, the Library and PE respectively – we created an entire day for this across K-6.

Today, digital learning encompasses almost every facet of what we do, whether it is in libraries or the gym. Online school has made the digital device a necessity, when it once was a nice-to-have. Platforms evolve, from Quizlet to Khan Academy; Grammarly to Google Classroom; Mindstorms to Scratch and so much more.  Students now create podcasts with a simple free AnchorFM app on a phone – intros, outros and all. Screencast-O-matic has taken the pain out of video-supported lessons for teachers like me, furiously posting them to Google Classroom. 

The VR glasses of yesterday are gathering dust on my shelf at Benjamin Franklin High school as the pace accelerates. Will Digital Learning Day become an archive of education too?