Novel, stressful or otherwise challenging situations can often tell us a great deal about individual and organizational attitudes and values.
The responses of schools and school leaders to next Tuesday’s Presidential address to U.S. students is a case in point. It is instructive to listen carefully to the reasons school leaders are providing to either leverage the learning opportunities presented by this nationwide address or squander them. I think the address provides a great opportunity for teachers, librarians, school administrators, and parents to experience together the power and value of live, synchronous interaction and dialog surrounding an event. Next Tuesday during and after the speech, since my 4th grade daughter’s teacher has decided NOT to let students watch the address together, I’m going to pull her out of class so we can both watch and participate in a synchronous live discussion (via CoverItLive) with 5th grade students at East Elementary School in Littleton, Colorado. (H/T to Karl Fisch.) Interestingly, our local school board announcement about President Obama’s Tuesday speech provides guidance for parents who do NOT want their children to listen, but it does not provide any guidance for parents who DO want their children to listen live and interact with others about this address when their classroom teacher has decided to OPT OUT.
Irrespective of the decisions made by your local school leaders regarding the speech, I challenge each of us with this question: How will we personally leverage the synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities which our President’s speech provides for our students and our communities? In addition to talking and writing about the issues this situation raises, we also should ACT in ways that can potentially have a constructive impact on the perceptions of others who may not be well informed about the potential value of live, synchronous events today when blended learning methodologies are employed.
Following the example of the successful Film on the Fly cell phone digital storytelling contests, I encourage students around the world to post short, thoughtful responses to President Obama’s speech to YouTube, EduBlogs.tv, TeacherTube, and other video sharing sites using a common hashtag. I’m not sure if a common hashtag has been suggested, so please share via a comment if you know of one– but I’ll suggest the hashtag #studentresponse09. The White House has provided a linked list of suggested classroom activities and media resources to use with students prior to and following the address, and a video contest should be announced soon on the U.S. Department of Education’s website. Whatever the focus of the forthcoming video contest may be, it’s a great idea to solicit direct student feedback and responses to the video address as well as the discussions which ensue online and face-to-face in the weeks that follow. (Of course, parent permission to post student videos online remains as important as ever.)
School leaders’ responses to President Obama’s upcoming speech tell us several things, some which we probably know already and others about which we may not have thought previously.
1 – FEW SCHOOL LEADERS UNDERSTAND HOW TO LEVERAGE THE POWER OF LIVE, SYNCHRONOUS EVENTS
In our schools and communities, when most people think of “school learning” they frequently conjure an image of passive, disengaged students. We all know (or should know) that active, engaged learning is much better than a passive alternative for many reasons, including student learning and achievement. We are living in an amazing day for information sharing and blended learning, and need to help others in our communities understand that increasing access to asynchronously shared video content (like YouTube) as well as interactive web services (like CoverItLive) create NEW opportunities for learning which involve NEW pedagogies.
All U.S. families do not currently have a DVR, or a home computer with high-speed Internet access. The fact that the White House will be posting this video address to YouTube following the speech, however, means that LARGE numbers of people who cannot watch the speech “live” WILL be able to do so after-the-fact. Since the text of President Obama’s speech will be posted to the White House website tomorrow (Monday, Sept 7th) it appears he will NOT be responding to any student-submitted questions or comments during the presentation. I hope that is not the case, since it would be great for the President to respond to student questions, but even if he does the realities of viewer numbers and time constraints are such that he wouldn’t have time to respond to many individuals even if Q&A is part of the schedule/agenda. Since the speech will be available for easy, asynchronous access via YouTube after the “live” speech time and the speech’s content will apparently not contain any “surprises,” a logical question to ask is: What is the value of having students watch the President’s address “live” and together?
The potential for and value of “live” interactions between students, teachers, and others is THE primary reason to watch the address live rather than watching it later. Every teacher in the classroom today, and administrator in our schools today, grew up in a time when this type of asynchronous, nearly-ubiquitous access to recorded video was impossible. From the fireside chats of FDR to the weekly radio addresses of U.S. Presidents leading up to the Obama Administration, if you couldn’t catch / consume the message “live,” it was hard or impossible to hear it in its entirety at a different time. (Please correct me if I’m wrong: It’s entirely possible the weekly radio addresses of George W. Bush were archived and made available online– I never heard about that being the case, however, and guess it would have been something we’d have heard about if his administration was leveraging digital media in that way.)
My point is this: WE need to question the value of synchronous, non-interactive face-to-face learning contexts. When we ARE live and synchronous with other learners, we need to LEVERAGE the potential of that context to dialog, discuss, and interact. Tuesday’s Presidential address provides an ideal opportunity for students, teachers, administrators and others to experience an educational backchannel.
For more on educational backchannel options, see Scott Snyder’s 2008 presentation for K12Online08, “Back-channels in the Classroom.” Remember we’re all invited to join 5th graders in Littleton, Colorado, in their CoverItLive session for the President’s address on Tuesday. It’s free to join and participate there. 🙂
2 – WE NEED TO EXPOSE SCHOOL LEADERS TO MORE EXAMPLES OF CONSTRUCTIVE SOCIAL MEDIA USE
Whatever your opinion of President Obama, our current debate over health care, or other issues– I hope you can agree that his constructive modeling of the uses of social media platforms to communicate with constituents (both young and old) is very important and needed by many of our school leaders.
In Oklahoma where I live, a LARGE number of public school districts block ALL video sharing websites as well as interactive/user-generated content websites including blogs and wikis. Many of our school districts, incredibly, continue to block access to our Celebrate Oklahoma Voices learning community and the 430+ educator/student created videos it now contains. The fact that this Presidential address is receiving so much attention and generating so much discussion is a GOOD thing, since adults as well as young people are going to likely grapple with the question, “Why don’t we just watch this later on YouTube?” That is a great question to ask at all levels of education, because it can expose the power of asynchronously accessible video as well as the priority we should place upon ENGAGED, INTERACTIVE learning environments devoid of passive learners. We’ve become far too accustomed to “passive learning” as the norm in classrooms, and this must change.
3 – WE HAVE FEW BRAVE LEADERS IN EDUCATION, AND MANY WHO PREFER TO BE DEFINED BY RISK AVERSION
This past week, in the Education Week article “Filtering Fixes,” I addressed the common tendency of many U.S. schools to overfilter Internet websites by noting:
Some of that [overfiltering the web] is understandable because of the risk-averse, conservative nature of schools,” he [Wesley Fryer] said. “My position is not ‘don’t block,’ but let’s filter reasonably and let’s also talk with students about choices and digital literacy and ethics, and let’s prepare kids for the unfiltered Web.
In the past several days, I’ve read a number of excellent posts by educators articulating the reasons students and teachers in our schools SHOULD watch the Presidential address and seize the moment to discuss a host of important ideas and issues together. Three (among many) I’d highly commend are Stephanie Sandifer’s post, “Fear, Censorship, and Agendas…”, Buffy Hamilton’s post, “It IS About Intellectual Freedom, Not Politics,” and Will Richardson’s post, “The Obama Speech.” To these thoughts and the comments shared in response, I’d add the following two observations.
A – We have too much HATE in politics today.
If President Obama had intended this message to be heard primarily by students and parents at home, he would have chosen to share this address in the evening rather than during the school day. The “official” reason my daughter’s teacher gave for NOT permitting her students to watch the address “live” in class next week was that the video would be more appropriately viewed at home with parents. Understand: This was the version of “why” which Sarah brought home on Friday. That reason could have been obscured in 9 year old translation, and I’ll confirm that next week.
I think the root issue with many schools choosing to give teachers the choice to “opt out” of watching the address with students, and parents the choice to “opt out” of permitting their students to watch the address at school, is HATE and dislike among many constituents for President Obama and his politics. I am NOT saying that teachers or school officials hate our President. I AM observing that it is far easier for school leaders to provide these “opt out” guidelines and policies for schools and teachers rather than face the predictable (but of course, highly unfortunate) wrath of parents who don’t like President Obama and don’t like the idea of him speaking directly to their children at school.
This situation of parents worrying over our President speaking directly to students is not only “silly,” as Arne Duncan has observed, it’s also RIDICULOUS. As I noted at the start of this post, however, this response is also highly instructive about our state of affairs not only within schools but within our communities more generally. We need MORE democracy and civic participation in our nation, not less. We need MORE opportunities for civic discourse and dialog among constituents today, not less. We need our schools to provide opportunities for students to question, to debate, to listen, and to learn. Announcing “opt out” school policies for the President’s speech reflects a broader tendency in many of our schools to kowtow to almost any type of parent demand, and seek the path of minimal risk / least resistance in most situations.
Our schools need to address HATE and become venues for civil discourse about these issues and others that matter. Schools should not be viewed primarily as institutions of social control where the thoughts, opinions and beliefs of students are shaped in a top-down model: rather they should be places where students learn how to THINK and practice THINKING every day. I’m not opposed at all to local control of schools, I’m actually an ardent supporter of it. It’s sad to see many of the choices which local control leads to, however, not just in the context of this Presidential address but in many other arenas: sports, technology, etc. The good news is, not all schools are making the same choices, and we can amplify those who are making more constructive choices which support student civic engagement rather than focusing only on those who give teachers and families the “opt out” choice.
B – Many adults overestimate the power and importance of the formal school curriculum.
I am going to write a separate post in upcoming weeks about this topic, but I’ve been amazed by the “permission forms” which our girls’ school district has sent home asking for parent permission to let students view specific video titles during the school year. Personally, I’d think we’d just leave it to the professional judgement of professional educators to determine the instructional materials appropriate for our students to view, read, and consume both at school and elsewhere as homework during the academic year. While educational officials have varying levels of control over the content of “the formal curriculum,” I think this situation with the Presidential school address may highlight an overestimation on the part of many adults of the power and importance of the formal curriculum. Don’t get me wrong, I am all “for” students watching the Presidential address “live” and engaging in discussions before, during and following the speech. A question that comes to mind in this regard, however, is this: What effect will “opting out” of viewing the Presidential address truly have on students and families, in terms of their knowledge about the ideas and themes of the speech? My guess is, in most cases: very little. The fact that there is so much buzz about this upcoming speech will insure that the vast majority of students as well as parents are going to be wondering, “What is the President going to say? What did he say?” There are going to be CONVERSATIONS around the ideas and themes of his message. Adult attempts to silence or prevent these conversations are going to backfire and achieve the opposite result: Those ideas are going to be even more likely to be amplifed and discussed because of these suppression attempts.
My guess and prediction is: President Obama’s message will be strong and shared in a compelling way. I predict he’ll tell stories, and work hard to connect with students’ hopes and dreams for themselves and for their own families. We should never underestimate the POWER OF WORDS. It IS a big deal that our President wants to directly speak to the students of our nation. I think it is great he wants to do this, and is going to do it. Even if my children or yours do not view President Obama’s speech “live” when it happens, there will be power and influence to his words as they are shared with the world. He is, after all, our chief executive and the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. His words SHOULD have power. They will have power, whether or not teachers in my school or yours choose to let students hear them “live.” Those who think they will diminish the power and influence of those words by keeping their children out of school on Tuesday if their class is going to watch the address are probably mistaken. Just like a teenager whose curiosity is piqued when told, “You can’t do/watch this,” student interest is going to be higher about the speech because of the absurd ways many adults have responded to it: With fear, trepidation, and disrespect in some cases. The power of the formal curriculum in schools today may be weaker than ever, in large part due to the tremendous power of mainstream media coupled with social media.
I’ve been trying to finish writing this post all day amidst our family Labor Day activities, and I’ve probably written too much. Remember that whatever your local school, classroom, teacher, or fellow teachers may choose to do with respect to the Presidential address on Tuesday next week, it will be an instructive moment. Ask yourself, what is motivating this decision? Are leaders trying to do what is best for children, for learning, for thinking and for our democracy, or are they simply doing what seems reasonable when “risk aversion” is the top value driving decisionmaking? Remember to ask what YOU can do to highlight the power and value of blended conversations during and following the address, and highlight the importance of an informed as well as active citizenry in discussing the affairs and priorities of our nation.
Behold, the value of social media is before us. We’ve only just begun to realize its potential to revolutionize learning.
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