I have listened to about an hour of “A Knock at Midnight: Original Recordings of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.” as a purchased audiobook from the iTunes Music Store. I have really enjoyed it so far, and highly recommend it. Listening to the words of Dr. King, spoken himself in original recordings, is a powerful experience.

In his sermon focusing on the imagined letter from the Apostle Paul to the America of the late 1950s, Dr. King quoted American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who observed that technology can serve merely as:

Improved means to unimproved ends.

This is a thought worth contemplating. To what extent are the technologies employed in our schools today merely serving to automate the traditional activities and goals of education, rather than transforming them into authentic activities of real, lasting value?

The answer, I think, is most of the time. We need more teachers and students engaging in interactive classroom exchange projects with ePals, setting up classroom blogs of student writing, and creating authentic digital stories which help archive the oral history of those living in their homes and communities.

Unfortunately, I think in most classrooms technology continues to be used as primarily a glorified typewriter to word process documents and as an efficient funnel to capture and consume, for later regurgitation, content from the World-Wide Web. Student PowerPoint presentations abound, but my perception is that most reflect a product of a content transmission-based curriculum, rather than the efforts of original thinking and inquiry.

This does not have to be the case in your classroom. Particularly in older grades (2nd grade and up) blogging and podcasting can be used disruptively to motivate students in their quest to become better communicators: writers, readers, listeners and speakers. Of course technology is not required to do this: to help students authentically engage with content in depth and think critically about it. But technology can certainly help if used appropriately.

Helping kids develop literacy skills is not rocket science. It does not take a rigorous phonics rulebook or semesters of sentence diagramming. It really does not require spelling tests. What it requires more than anything is PRACTICE. When kids write more, they write better. When they read more, they read better. When they speak in front of their peers and other groups more, they become more proficient public speakers. This is literacy basics 101, not an advanced doctoral class with a title everyday folk might not understand or recognize as “literacy development.”

Check out this press release on the results of a pilot project in which 4th grade students regularly emailed other students, titled “Email Improving Student Reading and Writing Test Scores.” This was in a classroom in urban Newark, New Jersey. The students did more writing, so they become better writers. Shouldn’t be a surprise. If that is true, why aren’t more teachers and students engaging in these types of projects? The most common reason given? “We don’t have time.” :-(

Shouldn’t all our students be engaged in authentic literacy activities that not only help them develop their skills of reading and writing, but also are fun and intrinsically motivating? Absolutely. If our teachers say they don’t have time to do activities like this, then what ARE they making time for? The answer may depress and frustrate us. But that reality is not naturalistically determined. It is the result of choice.

An ePals account is free to setup, but you have to actually USE it in a classroom interactive project to see results that matter. Classroom blogs can be setup for free. All they require is some time and passion. What are you waiting for? :-)

The real test of life is not the state assessments students have to take in school, but is measured through the skills with which students walk out of the schoolhouse to face the challenges of life in the 21st century. Teachers at all levels have a moral obligation to prepare students for these REAL tests, which will come long after the state and nation have compiled their bar graphs of student performance so the legislators can pat themselves on the back as they run for re-election.

If an administrator or parent wants to know why you’re setting up a classroom blog or engaging in an interactive email writing project, a good answer would be, “We’re preparing ourselves for the 21st century communication landscape by SAFELY immersing ourselves in it.” I don’t think a reasonable observer could argue that is anything other than a valid and important educational means as well as end end.

In this case, improved means for improved ends. Even Thoreau might approve. :-)


Did you know Wes has published 3 eBooks, and 1 of them is available free? Check them out!

If you're trying to listen to a podcast episode and it's not working, check this status page. (Wes is migrating his podcasts to Amazon S3 for hosting.) Remember to follow Wesley Fryer on Twitter (@wfryer), Facebook and Google+. Also "like" Wesley's Facebook pages for "Speed of Creativity Learning" and his eBook, "Playing with Media." Don't miss Wesley's latest technology integration project, "Mapping Media to the Common Core / Curriculum."

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