Sunday, February 14, 2016

Facebooking Ourselves to Death

Facebook is Neil Postman's worst media nightmare.  He argued in his classic 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death that Americans are dumbing down TV news to the point where it's harmful to individuals and to society. 

Postman had problems with TV news jumping from story to story with no context: Viewers get a minute on a plane crash, eight seconds on oil prices, a quick piece of political gossip ... and then a bulldog on a skateboard wraps it all up.

Tillman, busy warming hearts.  First disclaimer: I owned an English bulldog named Big Pete, and I loved him dearly. No one is anti skateboarding bulldogs. 

The result of a TV newscast is a disoriented viewer who heard a series of disconnected facts; but, didn't necessarily come away with any actual meaning.  

Explaining oil prices is hard. Bulldogs on skateboards are hilarious. 

So entertainment superceeds everything else because we can't (or don't want to) digest complex or dry information.  

Here's Postman's real point: There's nothing wrong with entertainment. The problem is when everything we do becomes centered around, or grounded in, entertainment.  

The big cable companies are bad enough. Then there's Facebook.  

Facebook is television news on steroids, in terms of its potential to disorient while pretending to educate.  

Facebook is typically an informational free for all.  Maybe your news feed is a bit more organized and logical.  But here's my newsfeed right now, in a 10 second scan:
  • A friend living in LA saw the evil sensei from Karate Kid at the grocery store
  • A few cute pics of people with their children
  • A joke
  • A political news story
  • Underwater pics of dogs diving into a swimming pool after tennis balls
  • A local business hired a new pet groomer
  • A pic of the beautiful, cold snowy morning we are experiencing
  • A quote from Mark Twain
  • This Valentine's Day card meme ... 

  • A video of Tiger Woods
  • More political stories
  • Someone's dinner from last night
  • More jokes and memes
  • And, one of those fake stories / advertisements designed to get you to click, about someone suspecting a ghost in the attic.  But what they really found will shock you! 

Disclaimer two: There's nothing wrong with any of this!  Especially the ghost in the attic link ... I wonder what's up there ... 

There's a lot of beauty here: My Facebook feed also contains news of a friend's first child; and, my youngest brother's engagement. 

But, if we consume several hours of this utter randomness a week - and here's the important part - we do not turn to any substantive news source for any other media engagement ... well, that's where we become screwed. 

The Daily Show, WMMS on the way into work, and scrolling through our news feed on our phones a few times a day is just not enough to feed our brains.

What I suggest for students

I suggest this for everybody, actually: Read the paper. 

I disagree with my mom on most key issues, but she can usually take me to school when it comes to a presentation of facts. She's read two papers every day for years, and she knows what's going on.  

Facebook conveys a rainbow of interesting and entertaining information; but, newspapers are designed to pass on meaning through a structured, repetitive delivery of analysis-based content. 


A newspaper is logically structured. The sections build out from each other like concentric circles: Local, to state, to national news.  Newspapers always first tell us what's going on, then they offer analysis and opinion on what we just read a section later. 

The sections are the same every day so a story can build. And readers can sharpen analysis skills by following the storyline as it plays out over time, and within a clear context. 

I am a strong advocate of both print and digital news media consumption in the classroom; and I'd suggest parents wanting to challenge their kids at home insist they read actual papers or news sites - versus news subscriptions and feeds running through Facebook.

Ideally a student would work with both print and digital news sources, since a digital site is quite a different experience from a newspaper. 

Is Facebook just plain evil?

I mean, there was that time (that we know of) that Facebook experimented on us, attempting to manipulate user emotions through the content that was selectively posted.

The other thing about Facebook is people seem happier when they are not on it.  I hear all the time from people who get off it, and describe the absence as if a spell were being broken. 

I'm not sure how healthy the social media saturation our kids undergo can possibly be for many insecure, developing teenagers, either. 

Disclaimer three: I'm a Facebook frequent user, and a digital marketer in charge of social media for a few different companies. But ...  something just doesn't feel right to me about this social platform. In short, I think Facebook has the potential to cast a shadow across the spirit.  

"When I was a kid, we didn't have any Facebooks, and we liked it!" 

My nutshell advice to educators teaching a unit or class on social media and current events would be to simply create clear distinctions.  Facebook is not news. It has sprinklings of news in it, but nothing replaces the newspaper if you want to understand what's happening in our world.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Why I Quit Teaching (For Now)

(two of my former students and graduates of Broadway Academy)

I just read a piece in the Washington Post by a private school teacher who was simply burned out.  This whole genre of "Why I quit Teaching" articles is often dramatic and has been done to death: We know education is a crazy, uphill battle; and teachers piling on with their sob stories isn't necessarily helpful in terms of fixing our fundamental problems.

But Jan Sidebotham's piece is straight forward and refreshing, stating simply, "This is what you guys think we teachers do - and this is what we actually do." Her piece prompted me to finally write my own reasons for exiting the profession, and choosing to reengage corporate America:

My students would not sit down.

Teaching in this charter school was like teaching in a stereotypical movie about urban schools. It was nuts. 

Now, I'm always up for a fight ... I'm up for a daily fight, actually; so, this wasn't the problem.

My students just would not sit down.

There were very rare occasions when you could get them to settle in, maybe, when the principal was in the room threatening everyone with expulsion. But the second he left they'd erupt, seething with resentment and anger. 

And when I corralled all of my energy, talents and creativity into a lesson - and added some incentives (or threats) of my own ... the kids would do some work for short stretches of time. Maybe 10 minutes, before some wheel fell off and the bus inevitably tipped over.

Cleveland cops (always present in the building) could not quiet a class.  They'd tell the kids to be quiet while they spoke, and that was accepted as a challenge. Suddenly these hardened officers in bullet proof vests had 30-plus kids all jumping to their feet, shouting at them.  We joked that it would literally take the National Guard to get the entire school under control at any given moment. 

Don't misunderstand: This overall situation was far from all bad. I loved my kids, and they loved me back. We had a special connection and an understanding. 

Because my kids liked me, they actually behaved better for me than for their other teachers. I brought some of them to my home, prompting one kid to say, "Mr. Bank, we've never had anything like this before."  "What do you mean?" I asked.  "A teacher who cared," was his answer. 

But the fact remained: The basic concept of sitting down and doing work was absolutely foreign to these eighth graders. The seventh graders were better; but, the eighth graders had a full decade of Lord of the Flies behavior under their belts, and that's hard to reverse. 

And I had them for three-hour blocks at a time.  

I'd have the seventh graders for the morning, then the eighth graders for the afternoon as I traded off with my partner teacher (a first year guy with an incredible amount of grit). I did English, he did Math. We estimated that, on a good day, we got in somewhere between 15 and 45 minutes of instruction - and the rest of the time was utter shenanigans.

Mostly, they ran around the room - around the tables, on top of tables, smashing through the tables - chasing each other and play fighting until an actual fight broke out. Which was an inevitable, at-least weekly occurrence.  You could just about set your watch by their fights.

These were tough kids. They thought nothing of jumping each other in between classes, then sitting down as if nothing had happened.  I actually gave some self-defense tips to one of my eighth grade boys, and he put them to use the very next day when he was walking home. Some kids questioned his "set," and didn't like his answer.  Translation: He walked a street over, away from the safety of his own block. 

I was proud of my student for not only surviving the assault, but for turning the tables and besting his attacker. I taught my students the difference between thinking you are tough, and knowing you are trained. 

I just couldn't quite make them see the connection between disciplined class work now, and rewards to come later. That corner was too much to see around. They had enough trouble navigating the dangerous physical corners as they walked home from school. 

I don't know if I'll be back in the classroom; most likely if I do return to education, it will be on the administrative side. I love my job as a corporate trainer; but, life has taught me to expect the unexpected, and I willingly go where I am called, and where I am led.  We shall see. 

In the meantime some advice for my students:  Hey J.J. and T ...?  Guys?  I think about you and your classmates a lot.  You will always have a place in my heart. 

Here's some advice for the next time around: 

Just sit down.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Initial Lessons From East 55th

  We had a teacher start at my Cleveland, Ohio inner city middle school this past Monday.  She also quit this past Monday.  She lasted one day, for those of you who are not mathematically inclined.

Her reasons centered around student behavior: It's a tough job, my principal says casually - as he makes a massive understatement punctuated with a smile.

You know when you drive through a tough neighborhood and think, "Man, I'm lost - I'm keeping my doors locked and windows up ... where's the freeway??!!"

That's where my students live.

I love my students (well, most of them ... kids are kids are kids), but they wasted no time in teaching me a few valuable lessons:

1. Respect here is earned, not simply given. At past schools, I could ask for respect the first day - and get it - while the students began to feel me out and decide if they really respected me or not.

Not the case at my middle school: The students view you with suspicion for several days and weeks, while you prove to them 1. you are tough enough to handle them and 2. you aren't going to leave them.

2. Everyone leaves them. These students have bounced from school to school, and relative to relative, and they've often burned through several teachers in one school year.  They crave stability, but expect on some level to be ultimately abandoned.

3. My feelings are irrelevant.  "I feel a class should behave like X, or be capable of Y!"  It's not about my feelings, it's about where the kids are at - because that's where I have to go and meet them.  This isn't an MTV movie; I won't change the institutions so fundamentally entrenched in their neighborhoods and their lives.

My job is to accept the situation to a large degree; and, then to set about touching individual lives.  A mother told me just the other day, "My daughter says you are her favorite teacher - she talks about you all evening long, right up until she goes to bed!"

Those are the special moments that keep me driving from a farm in Medina to East 55th and Broadway every day. I suspect the lessons coming from E 55th are just beginning for me.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Eulogy for Deaf Ears

Freedom was a very big deal here, in this unique historical experiment known as America.

It's gone now, and no one seems to care.

I wish I were only being dramatic, but a few dozen times a week I am reminded of just how far down the rabbit hole we've gone, in terms of giving up our freedom. It's a hole greased with Crisco - you can't easily climb back out. Human nature and history offer clear guidance on this issue: Once power is gained and centralized, it is almost never (willingly) relinquished.

We Americans gave up power, piece by piece, in the name of security, technological advancement, the collective good, and most bizarrely to me ... the convenience of social media.

Facebook wants me to install a new instant messenger - in fact I have to, in order to access messages with my phone. And it only wants access to all of my text messages and phone records in exchange. I've asked several people who use this mandatory Facebook phone app about this privacy issue, and they all collectively shrug.

It's the same shrug we all offered when we found out that nothing we do online is private, and we have zero expectation of privacy in any of our online transactions or communications.

This is the same Facebook who conducts twisted psychological experiments on us. In order to receive my Masters in Education, the most laborious part of the program was getting approval from Walsh University's ethics board - to conduct my thesis-related experiment.

I had my students eat cupcakes, and write essays using a cupcake method as a guide. I judged their learning before, and after, exposure to the "cupcake method" of writing I use.  The university ethics board wanted to be absolutely certain that I'd considered every conceivable angle for potentially harming students, so I jumped through weeks of hoop after hoop while seeking approval.

Facebook takes care of all that pesky permission garbage when you click "yes" to sign up. Convenient, huh.

What prompted this post wasn't Facebook's massive data collection efforts, but a video I caught on CNN. Yes, it's edited for dramatics, but unlike the mess currently still not sorted out in Ferguson, the police dash cam offers some objective facts while documenting a heartbreaking incident.  Watch the small child walk out of the car with his hands up, scared to death and concerned for his handcuffed mother - then watch the arrogant police chief defend this dramatic, guns-drawn traffic stop.

Then tell me we are free.

Just make sure to tell me via email, Facebook or cell phone ... so the government can store our correspondence as part of the war on terror.

I'm trying to pinpoint just when the police went from helping us, to routinely scaring law abiding families half to death.

A spot of good news related to the issue of police brutalizing citizens: President Obama is reviewing the practice of the federal government handing out military weaponry to local police departments. Still yet to come: Obama's review of his own power to personally decide who lives and dies via drone strike.

I have a special classroom focus this year: Teaching my kids to become powerful communicators has taken on a new sense of urgency and importance for me.  My students need to develop their own strong, confident voices - so they can speak up when necessary, and help decide if this whole freedom thing is maybe worth resuscitating after all.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Quality Twitter Conversations for Schools

Recently I had a conversation with my assistant principal, and he recounted how kids were scoffing about the official school Twitter feed not having many followers. "But I can connect with anyone using hashtags like #edchat," he replied to a particular student with 900-some followers.

My AP recognized something valuable regarding Twitter for schools: It's about quality, not quantity. Twitter is a great PR platform and communication channel: Schools probably want influential parents and community thought leaders following them, and Twitter is a great chance to interact with the media.

On the topic of Twitter as a PR tool, it's become cool online to be snarky - so many online posts and comments (and now even media headlines) are like zingers from sitcoms.

The White House talks in this trendy fashion on social media. The caption to this Twitter picture reads, "That time Bo tried to make fetch happen."

I can tell you my high school students would find that tone and style overused and tiresome, and creepy when adults attempt to speak that way. Most of us probably agree social media is a chance to make humorous observations, poke fun, be witty, etc. But schools (and the White house) should constantly consider tone and audience.

Schools should also consider who has the time, personality and tech skill to do the tweeting, and maybe it's a small group. Tweeting is a commitment, and an ignored account sends a negative message. Enough mediocre advice from me - get out there and start tweeting, so you can look back fondly at "that time your school made tweeting happen!"

John Ritter, one of my all-time favorites

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Our Post-Factual Era

We are officially living in a post-factual period of time, where actual facts are second to agendas, feelings, opinions and emotions. It's not that facts aren't important; they just take a clear back seat to the almighty narrative, and all that supports it.

Exhibit A: CNN just announced its plans to swap out news with a zany mix of opinion, documentaries and entertaining content delivered with "attitude." How grand, because that's exactly what our culture needs ... an injection of more style ripe to be mistaken for, and presented as, substance.

Many have noted (usually with a simple sigh and a shrug) that Orwell was as much a prophet as an author. My concern is that Mike Judge might be joining him as a cultural soothsayer.

What's at stake?

As educators, we can expect incoming waves of students to mistake opinion for fact; or, at least not to discern any difference of value between the two concepts. And, the louder one talks and the more he repeats himself, the stronger his case will appear.

Or, I should say: The louder and more frequently one repeats himself, the more correct he'll be, period.

Thinking critically, and divorcing oneself from a subject to conduct an objective review and analysis ... these will increasingly become lost arts unless educators step in and try to reverse this tide. 

But working against a strong cultural current is nothing new for educators - we are up to the task. I would only add that, if you disagree with me, get a brain, Moran!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Online Paperless Testing for the Clasroom

My tenth grade classroom is pretty much paperless, and it's not because I'm especially tech savvy.

It's because making a ton of copies is both costly and time-consuming. When it comes to tests, it's far easier for me to post questions online, and have students answer in Google docs they share with me.

During these lab sessions, I can drop in on their docs and monitor their progress. I often have an idea of student grades before class is half over.

That brings up the other reason I am paperless: reliable lab access. We're fortunate at my school to have labs available several times a week.

How to go paperless for tests

Google Forms allows for test creation and student use, and there are a lot of other good software choices as well.

The first thing my students do when we hit a lab is open our class website in Chrome, and also open / share a doc.  At that point I can take them through a lesson; we can design and create; or, I can give them a test.

We thus begin a streamlined, interactive process. I teach this way a lot because it's simple, easy and it works.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Tug of Peace

Yesterday a neighborhood a few miles from mine went into a day-long lockdown: A lanky, murderous 21 year-old punk wielding a pocket knife prompted a call from police to residents - "Get indoors, lock up and lay low" was the gist.

This is the new, softer America: A place where boys are shaped and molded into new, softer images of boys from generations past.

A place where playground tug-of-war games are thrown out by well-meaning PTA boards; replaced, instead by tugs of peace.

A place where strong citizens with guns suppress their instincts and wait for other citizens with guns (and uniforms) to save them.

A place where we gladly surrender freedom for security in all aspects of our lives.

It will be interesting to teach my son about the history of freedom, as he grows up in a world mostly devoid of it ... in the heartland where values once had meaning ... nestled inside a nation on a relentless march toward the almighty idea of Progress.

Everything is impermanent, and yes, one day even the mighty America will be but a memory. I know this.

Still, it seems proper to at least try and eulogize freedom - because it was pretty darned special while it lasted.