Tag Archives: students

(Don’t) Give it Away for Free: A Teacher’s Conundrum

I’ve been struggling with something lately, and have been meaning to find the time to write about it here. It all began with a friend’s blog post, followed by a bar conversation, followed by a 23-message email chain with a teacher in my district, but before I get to all that, I want to rewind a little further.

Crafting lessons, assignments, and units has always been fun for me. I get to be creative, to design an experience for my students around the goals I’ve set for their learning, to imagine my plans in action — it’s downright fun. So naturally, it is also fun for me to share these plans with my colleagues, whether in the teacher’s lounge or in the form of a fully-developed unit plan carefully organized in a binder full of a unit’s scope-and-sequence, assignment sheets, lesson plan calendar, assessments, and examples of student work (I have a lot of these). I was always proud of the “stuff” of teaching that I had created, from that clever lesson on poetic rhythm using Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat to my favorite portfolio unit on gender and social justice for my 9th grade classroom. If someone wanted to use my materials, I handed them over, thrilled that someone wanted to adapt or share something I had crafted.

I always hoped and expected, of course, that anyone who used my materials would credit me, as I had been taught to do whenever I borrowed someone else’s lesson plans or unit concepts. But I have never hesitated to share curriculum that I developed and designed. Case in point: this very website showcases all of the college syllabi I developed during my time at Michigan, including assignments and examples of student work.

Then, about two weeks ago, a few things made me pause and wonder…

Should I Stop Giving it Away for Free?

First, an article, published my a close friend of mine on her blog, entitled “Teachers: Stop Giving it Away for Free.”  As you might expect from the title, she makes the argument that teachers have developed significant stores of knowledge based in experience, have crafted well-designed lessons, units, and other resources with inherent value, and they should not simply hand over these resources for no compensation. She writes:

We need to stop underselling ourselves. It’s not a matter of modesty: we’ve all seen too many bad instructional materials, known that we can do it better. Thus, we should. And we should attach some sort of value to what we do because if we don’t, people will keep taking it until we have nothing left. Know your worth.

And dammit, I agree with her. We’ve all read article after article about how the teaching profession is being perpetually devalued, arguably de-professionalized. Do teachers contribute to this deprofessionalization by handing over their materials and expertise for free? In the corporate world, this doesn’t happen — if you want someone’s professional expertise, their intellectual property, you have to pay them for it, right? My friend makes exactly this argument, saying:

The biggest oversight is that administrators and even other teachers don’t seem to realize that these experts are either next door to them or within their buildings. We sit through PDs that these folks could teach effectively and responsively, yet, they are never asked. On the off chance that they are finally asked to do something, there is often no compensation for the time invested for preparing an excellent PD.

This one struck a chord with me, because as a district-level non-administrator (I am a member of the teacher’s union, and I professionally identify as a teacher, even though I often need to remind people of this), I make a habit of asking teachers to share their expertise in the PD I create. I invite teachers as panelists in online PD to share examples of their practice, and I am actively working to increase my connections across the district so that I have more teacher expertise to draw from. I lean and rely on practicing teachers to develop PD, because they are the best resources.

The Sticky Wicket: Compensation

Here’s where I run into trouble: I can’t financially compensate every teacher expert we have on one of our panels or every teacher who submits a curricular resource to our archive.

Which brings me to the bar conversation. I have been back and forth with my counterpart in my department about how we can attain a budget to compensate teachers for contributing to our professional development, whether that be an example of student work, an hour of their time to talk about their practice, or a sample unit or lesson plan resource. The conversation circled around questions like: “are lesson plans intellectual property?” “if so, whose? the teacher’s or the district’s?” “should teachers be compensated for their intellectual property?” Long story short: we’re still talking about it.

The morning after the bar conversation, one of the digital rock stars in our district, who also happens to be friends with the above-quoted blogger and a blogger herself, called me on this compensation issue in response to an email asking a number of our teachers to contribute resources or ideas to our digital archive so that we could share them in an online library showcasing examples from our teachers’ classrooms.

My inability to compensate teachers for things like this is in part because I work in a broken system that doesn’t recognize teachers as the curricular experts of their profession, so money isn’t automatically allocated for this purpose. It is also partially because of my position within my department (I don’t have control over a budget) and partially because I’m still learning how to do things like write grants to get money so that I have the cash to compensate teachers every time they contribute their expertise. So I do what I can do: I thank teachers profusely, I CITE THEM to give them credit for their work, and I offer up my time to their schools for professional development.

But I don’t necessarily think teachers need to be compensated for their expertise every time they contribute a resource, lesson plan, or unit, or every time they serve on a panel.

There. I said it.

We live in a corporatized culture, and schooling becomes increasingly corporatized by the day. Ask just about any educator about it, and you’ll get a long diatribe about how textbook companies like Pearson are making fortunes on the backs of today’s overtested, undervalued students and teachers. It’s really quite disgusting.

A counterculture to this corporatization of American schooling exists in the Web 2.0 world: a culture characterized by free and open (and attributed) sharing of author-licensed content. A culture that values open-source software maintained by communities of developers who care about the programs that make our lives easier, and don’t code for profit. A culture that values makerspaces, hacking for the sake of knowledge and experimentation, and above all — free and open sharing of socially-developed expertise. This culture actively challenges copyright law, arguing for a change in the way we understand ideas as property while still upholding the rights of the individual creator.

This is a culture today’s adolescents have helped to shape and create, from teen FanFic sites to the videos students make, edit, and post on their blogs to game hackers, today’s teens live in a world where remixing, creating, and sharing (for free) are everyday activities.

How Does this Apply to Teachers?

Maybe it doesn’t. After all, teachers are professionals — unlike adolescents, they have worked hard and earned multiple degrees to gain the expertise that they are asked to share, often without extra compensation. Fundamentally, I agree that teachers should not be asked to give up significant time — an extremely valuable resource for any teacher — without being compensated in some way. Too many teachers sacrifice time with family for a stack of ungraded papers on a Sunday. Let’s not contribute to that nonsense.

However, I think if we are to challenge the corporate culture of American schooling in the 21st century, we also need to think about how and where we share our resources “for free,” when we do. And we do need to share our expertise “for free.” We need to publish in practitioner journals, attend conferences, and write about our practice on blogs and in newspapers. We need to make visible the work of teaching.

On those occasions when we are asked to showcase our work for little or no compensation, we should license it using Creative Commons attributions. We should post and publish it in webspaces created by people we trust and who we know will honor the knowledge and expertise of teachers as professionals. We should not always demand that the time we take to share our craft be compensated — instead, we should demand that the time we take to share our craft be respected and valued by society. I don’t think we should combat the deprofessionalization of teaching by keeping our professional resources under lock and key: we should combat it by making our craft easier to see and understand. It’s why teacher bloggers are some of my favorite writers — they open up the craft of teaching for the world to see, taking time out of their busy lives to share what they know.

So for now, I will leave my syllabi, class calendars, lesson plans, and assignments on my website for others to take, adapt, and attribute.

What say you, teachers? What should(n’t) we give away for free?

Going Gradeless

It’s a sexy thing to do right now, going gradeless.

At least, it is something a number of my colleagues — secondary and post-secondary — are experimenting with. Can we go completely gradeless? No. Something tells me that if I refused to submit grades at the end of the semester, I’d get into some trouble. I don’t think the university would take kindly to me saying “grades ruin my teaching, so I’m not giving them anymore.” But to some extent, that’s what I have decided. When we give grades on every assignment, students learn to associate success with numbers and letters, not with the extensive feedback we spend so much time crafting. When students associate “A” with “amazing” and “D” with “deficient,” teachers lose the power of meaningful evaluation. Furthermore, students often take those letters and their meaning to heart, believing that if they get an “A” it means they are amazing, not their work. And by extension, if they get a “D,” they are deficient. In the composition classroom this seems especially true, as students associate their writing with themselves — who they are, what they believe, what they hold dear. Assigning letters and numbers to that undermines my teaching and my attempts to challenge their ideas and arguments. So I quit.

When I say I’m “going gradeless,” I’m referring to a growing (in my circles) interest in “contract grading,” or grading that makes an agreement with students that meeting a certain set of criteria will earn them a certain grade. Billie Hara breaks it down further in an article on ProfHacker/Chronicle of Higher Ed. Her article outlines some of the history of contract grading, which (I think) was first introduced by Peter Elbow, famous in the composition world for developing institutional work-arounds that, in theory, make writing courses more meaningful. Hara also describes some of the drawbacks of contract grading, namely that it uses vague terminology that makes it difficult for students to understand what will actually get them the A (or B, or C) they so desire:

How can a student define “exceptional” writing? How does the faculty member define it? How can a contract help a student know how to achieve the “exceptional”? Additionally, …how do faculty evaluate “thoughtful peer feedback” or “sustained effort” on draft writing? For me, many of these items are still subjective, and because they are subjective, are open to grade complaints.

But that issue of vague language — “engaging,” “effective,” “exceptional” — is an inescapable one for writing teachers, is it not? Because what we teach is messy. Is vague. Changes based on rhetorical situation, goals of the writer, medium of composition… but I digress.

When I first decided to try contract grading with my 229 class this semester, I had a number of conversations with colleagues of mine who had tried the approach. One said “I simply can’t make this work.” She’s not sure if it’s the institution (Michigan students are particularly grade-motivated) or the way in which she’s implementing contract grading, but she has yet to be convinced that it’s the “way to go” for her students. Another colleague said it has its drawbacks, but can work well in Professional Writing (what I’m teaching now), because how does one “grade a resume?” I decided to give it a go.

We’re now working on our final assignment of the semester in my Professional Writing course. Students have analyzed genres from various professions and developed professional web portfolios and social media profiles on LinkedIn. They have explored the role of Twitter and Facebook in the professional world, and we are currently working on writing effective proposals and designing pitches. They have had crash courses on visual and textual composition in Photoshop, Illustrator, WordPress, Wix, Weebly, and a few other digital spaces. And I have yet to give anyone a grade — on anything.

And here’s what I’m learning:

  1. Students like it, in theory. On the first day, everyone was like “yeah ok. sounds good.” Signed the contract, walked out of the room. Peachy.
  2. I’m sort of “grading anyway.” I set up the contract such that students, instead of being given a grade, would either be “meeting, exceeding, or not meeting” (B, A, and C respectively) the standards for an assignment. For each assignment, I give them a set of criteria (usually three or four key things I’ll be looking for). For the first assignment, I told them whether they met/exceeded/didn’t meet each criteria. If they didn’t meet any of the criteria (i.e. “got a C”), I invited them to revise. So basically, I graded them anyway.
  3. If I don’t “grade anyway,” I get asked questions.  When I realized I was sort of grading anyway on the first assignment, I changed my approach for the second assignment and just gave narrative feedback in response to their reflections. This prompted some questions about whether or not they were supposed to get a grade, and whether or not they had succeeded at the assignment (regardless of whether or not I indicated in words that they had done well and/or had other things to think about). These questions are understandable. None of my students had encountered contract grading before my class, so I get it. But the contract grader should be ready to explain — multiple times — the reason and logic behind his or her approach to grading.
  4. Students forget to look back at the contract. I got the sneaking suspicion a few days ago that no one has really looked back at the contract since the start of the semester. Which means I think few of them still realize that the “bare minimum” only gets them a B. I got this feeling when a few students verified the number of blog entries they needed to complete. I will need to remind them in the next week or so to revisit the contract, reminding themselves what’s required of them for the grade they seek to earn.
  5. I’m no longer the primary audience (sort of). This is why I actually went gradeless, so I’m glad this aspect of my experiment is going well. Students are paying attention to my feedback, but they are also adjusting their compositional decisions to reflect their classmates’ input (not just mine), and generally asking more questions about how to make their writing more effective for their target audiences (not just me). Certainly, they are still submitting assignments to me, but I see them paying a lot more attention to those external audiences they hope to target in their future professional writing, which (I believe) is making the writing process more meaningful and motivating for them.

I’ll come back to recap at the end of the semester, but for now, I think I like my approach to contract grading. However, I can also see how in other settings and for different courses, my approach could backfire. In many ways, though we might like to shed the expectations of the institutions of which we are part and parcel, doing so is futile. Would I love to teach a class for which I never had to give a single grade? Definitely, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

And one last thing that’s been gnawing at me lately — I have begun to wonder whether or not it’s entirely fair for us to expect our students to be okay with not receiving grades. They are, after all, seeking their educations at institutions with high expectations, and the expectations of their future employers and graduate schools are that they do well in their classes. The way they’ve come to understand what it means to “do well” is through the evaluations — which include grades — that they receive on their work. As the semester has worn on, I have therefore undergone something of a crisis of conscience. I want my students to be compositionists who care about their work because it’s theirs, because they are writers who write for audiences and purposes of their choosing, who seek to make a difference in their world through the things they make and the causes to which they contribute. But my students are also students, and they crave concrete feedback and evaluation from me, their teacher. Academia has “concretized” feedback, and teacher/student roles, by creating grades. Unfortunate, perhaps. Biased, incredibly. But the rule of academia, nonetheless. Who am I to challenge it, even in my smallest of ways? And how fair is it for me to do so with these students?

Some Thoughts on Teacher Bloggers

First, a Story

A teacher I have come to know over the past year is also a blogger. Let’s call her Allison. Allison is a teacher, a mom to two little boys, a wife, a blossoming tech nerd, and a lover of good wine. Allison maintained a blog that shall remain nameless. Her blog featured humorous but also thoughtful stories about her life as a teacher and a mom. She blogged about things like lessons she found entertaining and hysterical that her students thought were weird (that was one of my favorite posts). Or the ridiculousness of some of the right-to-work policies being touted in our state capitals. Or the realities of being a wife and mother — childbirth, wrangling toddlers, and fostering a positive relationship with her husband. She commiserated and communicated with other parents and teachers in her blog. She cussed a little, too.

I loved her blog. Not just as a researcher who is very interested in teachers and the ways in which they tell their stories using digital media. No, I loved her blog as a person. As someone who used to teach, and misses it. As someone who will someday have kids. As someone who loves some good wry humor now and then.

Note the past tense.

I’m not using the past tense because I no longer love Allison’s blog. I’m using the past tense because recently, Allison had to remove all of her blog content and move to a new online space. Start over. Clean slate. But not in a good way, and not for a good reason.

Allison maintains anonymity in her blogging life. Why? Well, her content is kind of snarky and sarcastic (which is part of why I love it). Also, she doesn’t always talk about teaching — she maintains a different network in her life as a blogger, which she wishes to keep separate from her work as a teacher.

Why else? Probably because, when it comes to being a teacher, there are weird stigmas attached to having a life outside of the school. Teachers are humans? What!? Probably also because it’s getting easier and easier for administrators to find reasons to fire teachers. Probably because, for many reasons, teachers are wary of letting their personal lives come too far into the school zone. Afraid of the vulnerability this poses, afraid of attacks on their livelihoods, on their families, on their healthy frames of mind. Teachers, after all, are already getting attacked on the professional front… why risk allowing that into one’s personal life?

What Happened? One of Allison’s students found her blog and was talking to other students about it. A colleague of Allison’s alerted her, and she removed all of the content from online (didn’t download it and move it — actually removed all content). Allison, alarmed by the fact that her once-anonymous blog was “outed” and that her students were aware of it, and concerned about what this would mean for her professionally, went into immediate blogger hiding. She created a new (also anonymous) blogspace, on which she has posted once. She’s starting over.

This pisses me off, folks. Not the starting over part, the needing to part.

I find this very frustrating, for a number of reasons. I’ll address each one separately below, but here they are in brief:

  1. Teachers are held to a standard of moral conduct that is not in keeping with the moral expectations in the rest of our society, and that is based primarily in Christian doctrine. And that’s just messed up.
  2. Teachers have almost no outlet for ever voicing the experiences they have in the classroom OR the experiences they have at home that might influence their approaches to their work.
  3. Those outlets teachers will create for themselves, because of item (1), often need to be masked by pseudonyms, and many teacher bloggers never tell their administrators or even colleagues about their blogs.

Here’s a bit more discussion on 1-3…

(1) Moral Standards

Do I think teachers are held to a higher moral standard than others in our society? Yes. Do I think this is okay? Yes. I need that to be totally clear.

What’s not okay? For teachers like this one, who got fired after writing horrible things about students on her blog, to maintain webspaces where they call out current or past students for being holy terrors. That’s unprofessional and ridiculous, and school districts shouldn’t stand for it. Teachers like these, in my opinion, shouldn’t be teachers anyway — we need to seek out the best in our students and help those parts of them grow! Not denigrate teenagers for being teenagers.

However, for teachers like Allison (or another friend of mine, who we’ll call Sylvia), to feel the need to censor themselves or to make their blogs anonymous because they’re worried the content might reflect poorly on their characters or might result in professional repercussions… that’s ridiculous. Sylvia has since de-anonymized her blog, which deals primarily with educational policy concerns and the life of the overworked English teacher. Allison’s blog was much less ed-y, yet her desire to keep it anonymous is much more pronounced.

Should teachers be strippers? Probably not. Should they deal drugs? Um, no. But dropping the occasional f-bomb in a blog post directed towards an adult mommy-blogger audience? I can see why Allison is worried about this reflecting poorly on her if an administrator caught wind or if all of her students found the post. I would have probably done the same thing she did if it were my blog. But does that mean she shouldn’t be able to engage this other — very rewarding (and even paying) part of her life? Can she not have this other job because her current one holds her to a moral standard that almost no other profession needs to answer to?

Surely, being the leader of children means teachers need to consider their role in shaping those young minds. But though many people have no problem letting our kids watch HBO, they might have a caniption if a teacher gets spotted at a bar by a student (what was the student doing at the bar, one might ask?) or if she curses up a storm with her friends outside of school. In other words, the moral standard teachers get held to is markedly Puritanical (I think) and is entirely unfair. Teachers are people who should be able to live their lives outside of school as productive adult citizens who, like most adults, might happen to swear and drink now and then.

(2) Teacher Venues for Voicing Experiences

Everyone and their great uncle thinks they know about being a good teacher. Well, that’s probably an overstatement — but certainly many people believe they know a lot about teaching, because, well, they grew up around teachers! We’ve all had teachers — good teachers, bad teachers, teachers we remember for that one amazing lesson, teachers we can picture but not name, teachers we keep in contact with for years after we leave their classrooms. It’s easy to have an opinion about what constitutes good teaching, or what makes a teacher effective, simply based on our experiences as people who once went to school, or as people who have kids who go to school, or as people in a society that has schools.

But really, you don’t know teaching until you’ve lived it. Becoming a teacher turned my understanding of the profession upside-down. Does it have its perks? Yes. My mom, who taught middle school math for 20 years before becoming an administrator, will tell you that teaching allowed her to raise us in the way that she wanted to — it allowed her to stay home in the summer with us, and to spend her evenings with us.

But teaching is not for the faint of heart. As a matter of fact, it can be downright heartbreaking sometimes. At other times, it can be the most heartwarming job on the planet. Basically, if you’ve got a weak heart — don’t start teaching. Unless you want to develop palpitations, that is.

The victories of teachers can be truly stunning, the defeats crushing. I remember a student I had when I taught 8th grade — she got pregnant halfway through the year. She was a sharp kid. Her poetry was beautiful and she loved to read. Sometimes she would come in my room and we would talk about the latest young adult novel she discovered. Sometimes she would write a poem “just cuz” and bring it to me for feedback so she could revise it. Not to turn it in, mind you. Just to make it better. One day, her mom emailed me to thank me. Her daughter had told her that she felt like she was just “that pregnant girl” to some of her other teachers (one teacher had said something terrible about her pregnancy to her friends, which I won’t repeat).

When she stood up at an assembly to speak out against race-based bullying at her high school, I was so proud of her I was shaking.

When she dropped out of school at the end of her sophomore year, I was heartbroken.

Teachers need places to tell these stories. The good ones. The sad ones. The ones that help us think about our society more critically, because schools serve as microcosms full of micropeople where the goods and ills of the world we live in play out daily. Blogs are a great way to do this and to reach a wide audience.

(3) They Who Shall Remain Unnamed

Would I openly — unanonymously — blog and teach? Well, I do. But would I do it if I were still a high school teacher? I don’t know, honestly. It would depend on a number of things, including:

  • The content of my blog
  • The supportiveness of my administration
  • The supportiveness of my colleagues
  • The setting in which I taught (rural? urban? suburban?)
  • The community in which I taught (conservative? liberal? diverse?)
  • Whether or not I had tenure, assuming that’s an option.

…and probably a number of other things, as well. Sylvia’s decision to “out” her blogger identity and to blog unanonymously was supported by her colleagues, though (at the time I spoke with her) she hadn’t directly told the principal about her blog. She also lives in a community that is fairly supportive of teachers and education in general, and that would be likely to agree with whatever “controversial” content she or her co-writers, who are colleagues of hers, might post.

I don’t know how much I would be willing to “rock the boat,” so to speak. I’ve never been in a position to make that choice — I became a blogger after I left the classroom. Allison’s decision to stay anonymous makes perfect sense to me. Sylvia’s decision not to also makes sense.

My concern has nothing to do with individual teachers’ decisions to be anonymous or not, but with the system that requires teachers to silence ideas they have that might prove “risky.” What counts as “risky?” Having an opinion about our governor’s education policies could prove risky in some communities. Teaching a lesson on the history of the word nigger could get you fired in other communities. Experimenting with new classroom formats, such as the “flipped” classroom, could prove risky as well. Which would make blogging about these things risky. Which would make attaching one’s name to her blog super risky.

You might be thinking, Liz, who cares if teachers blog anonymously? Why do you care that they need to use pseudonyms? I care because teachers should be recognized for the brave, risky, innovative things they do. Because the fact that teachers feel the (completely understandable) need to de-identify themselves worries me. It sends a message. And that message is “we can’t speak, for fear of reprimand.” For fear of firing, of being misinterpreted, of being discounted or disrespected. And that’s just depressing. Teachers should be able to show off, to showcase themselves, to have digital presences that aren’t masked or hidden.

I have been thinking through a number of these issues a lot in the past few years. I’ve written a few papers on blogging and teaching, on the role of anonymity, and on teacher identity. I’m happy to share readings or other things I’ve written with anyone who wants to know more, or who wants to engage in a conversation about this topic. It’s a loaded one, and one that I struggle to discuss, because I want to remain critical (of myself, of our world) while still making my ideas clear. So please, let me know your thoughts, reactions, criticisms, ideas.

And when a teacher wants to tell you a story, listen.

 

Pimps, Social Networks, and Education: Oh My.

Sometimes, I get to spend most of my day at home. Today became one of those days when mother nature decided to dump much snow on my little corner of the earth. This was our backyard this morning:

yard

Isn’t it so pretty? (note: I only think it’s pretty when I get to sit inside and hide from it).

On these days that I get to spend at home, staring out the window and thinking about how lucky I am that I can sit and write all day, I make lunch for myself. And one of my favorite things to do when I eat said lunch is to read the headlines and click around on CNN.com. It makes me feel like I’m aware of things that are going on in the world, even if only for the brief moments when I am eating my amazing homemade lunch (today: udon noodle soup in homemade turkey broth. yum.)

One of today’s headlines, front and center on CNN’s main page:

Pimps hit social networks to recruit underage sex workers!

Alright, yes, I added the exclamation point for rhetorical effect. But it was a pretty shocking headline. Given my recent complaint about tech fear run rampant in the media, I had to read the article. Would it be yet another manifesto on the evils of social media? I had to find out.

The piece chronicles a problem that is evidently rampant on social networking sites in which pimps are finding 15-and-up girls to traffic to men. These pimps attract young women with alluring (grammatically twitch-inducing) messages like this:

fbmessagepic

…and girls are falling for it. The author gives the example of one girl whose mother had been recently arrested for “financial crimes.” Apparently, this girl’s “deteriorating family life left her with a sense of desperation. She was smitten, and willing to do anything for the man she thought loved her. So she stayed.”

My tone so far might suggest that I’m poking fun at girls like “Nina” here, who fall for men like “Rain” (seriously? and that’s the actual name he used!) because they are looking for father figures or are trying to right some sort of horrendous wrong that has happened in their lives. This is not my intention. I do, however, mean to point out the ludicrousness of situations like this, situations that I think could be in some way remedied by teaching today’s students how to be critical users of online spaces like Facebook or Twitter, which are apparently two of the prime sites for these pimps’ recruiting operations.

Would these girls have fallen into similar destructive situations without the help of social media? Without the intervention of adults (often teachers) who pay attention and care about them, it seems likely. Teens who are this desperate for love and affection will often find ways to get it, even if those ways are as tragic and as horrifying as selling themselves or obeying the orders of some jerk named “Rain.” This article actually didn’t annoy me as much as some of the ones I noted in my previous post, mostly because the author takes the time to point out that the use of social media is really an old trick using new tools, and that web companies like Facebook “take human trafficking very seriously” (…uh, I should hope so?!) and have instituted means to detect it and shut it down. In other words, the article isn’t solely blaming social media for the ills in our society, but actually seems to suggest we might be responsible for some of our own nonsense (novel, eh?).

What I detect in news stories like this, though, is an undercurrent of fear in our society about social media corrupting the innocence of children. I mentioned recently that I’m reading Nancy Baym’s book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age. In it, Baym notes that one of the common discourses in the early take-up of new technologies is one of moral panic,  or fears that “form in dystopian rhetorics” and “can lead to important policy decisions at personal, household, governmental, and design levels” (41). Such rhetorics, Baym argues, “often focus on the well-being of children, and especially on the well-being of teenage girls (my emphasis). 

My concern is that stories like this do lead to policies that could potentially be counter-productive to curbing situations like this, where young girls are targeted and taken advantage of by online predators. I see this in multiple schools where certain social media sites are banned or blocked by the school’s servers, or where teachers are discouraged from using social media in their work with students for fear of somehow damaging authoritative relationships with students. Concerns I understand, but feel are counter-productive to the instruction of digital literacies.

In case you’re wondering what these media outlets want us to do to protect children, the piece links to the FBI’s tip sheet for protecting kids from these online predators.

I have news for the FBI: this list is kind of unrealistic for the parents (or teachers) of teenagers. Here are a few of my favorite bits of advice from our friends down at the Federal Bureau of Investigation:

  • Monitor your children’s use of the Internet; keep your Internet computer in an open, common room of the house.
  • Only allow your kids to post photos or any type of personally identifying information on websites with your knowledge and consent.
  • Make it a rule with your kids that they can never give out personal information or meet anyone in person without your prior knowledge and consent. If you agree to a meeting between your child and someone they met online, talk to the parents/guardians of the other individual first and accompany your kids to the meeting in a public place.
  • Check your kids’ profiles and what they post online.
  • Don’t forget cell phones! They often have almost all the functionality of a computer.

No — none of these are “bad” things to do. Heck, if you can manage to accomplish all of these things as a parent, I applaud you. Have you met a teenager? The whole “your knowledge and consent” thing tends to go against the standard operating procedure of most teenagers. Furthermore, I tutor teenagers who have their own computers and smartphones and who are perfectly responsible digital citizens. Having a single family computer in a communal area of the house worked when I was a kid and needed to type a grand total of one paper per semester — it’s completely unrealistic today, when students have their own tablets and laptops and in many cases need them to do their schoolwork. Keeping an eye on every single one of your child’s accounts and profiles, requiring access to your child’s devices and accounts, and constantly checking everything your kid posts online is becoming less realistic for today’s parents. And, I would argue, it’s not entirely necessary.

Instead, how about paying attention to the few nuggets of advice the FBI gives us that are actually worth listening to:

  • Instruct your kids to use privacy settings to restrict access to profiles so only the individuals on their contact lists are able to view their profiles.
  • Educate yourself on the websites, software, and apps that your child uses.
  • Visit social networking websites with your kids, and exchange ideas about acceptable versus potentially risky websites.
  • Encourage your kids to consider whether a message is harmful, dangerous, hurtful, or rude before posting or sending it online, and teach your kids not to respond to any rude or harassing remarks or messages that make them feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused and to show you the messages instead.

When it comes down to it, we don’t need to police kids’ uses of the Internet. While some supervision is certainly necessary, especially as kids are just beginning to spread their digital wings (so to speak), 24-7 policing of kids’ digital activities is downright unrealistic, if not impossible. And this approach definitely would not have helped “Nina,” whose Mom was in jail when Nina got recruited for prostitution.

Instead, maybe it’s time digital awareness became part of the curriculum at school and part of the conversation at home. As the CNN article states, throwing one’s hands up and saying they “don’t know how” to use the tech our kids are using is no longer an acceptable excuse. We live in a digital world, folks, and just like in an analog world, the tools we have can be put to horrifying uses when we don’t help kids learn how to integrate them into their lives in smart and responsible ways.

Am I worried about pimps online? Not as worried as I am that we’re not teaching these young teenage women, and their male counterparts, how to be good digital citizens.

Social Media Duh: English Teacher (me) Discovers Goodreads

I have started getting all of my students signed up for Goodreads, a website that allows you to track what you’ve read, what you want to read, and what you’re currently reading. The train of thought that led to this stroke of brilliance went as follows:

  1. I really want my students to read more on their own. Some do, some don’t.
  2. Last time I tried to get students to read on their own, I made them fill out reading logs.
  3. I really got sick of printing those.
  4. The kids really hated filling those out. So much so that many just… didn’t.
  5. There’s gotta be a better way.
  6. Hmmm….
  7. Well, while I ponder that, I’ll go catch up on reading for next week’s lessons.
  8. 20 minutes later, distracted from The Awakening by the need for a snack: I should enter this on Goodreads, I don’t think I’ve done that yet.
  9. OMG.

When I signed up for Goodreads last semester, I didn’t think I would use it. Goodreads cons: the interface isn’t entirely intuitive, some people log regularly while others don’t, and I still can’t figure out how to tell Goodreads to stop posting my activity to Facebook (anyone know how to do this?). But there are some serious Goodreads pros for a teacher who only sees her students for about 45 minutes a week, too. Pros: it’s digital, which means no more printing logs; it’s digital, so I can keep track of students’ activities even when I’m not seeing them every day; it’s digital, so they can all be “friends” with each other and keep each other accountable; and it’s digital, so they can have discussions even though they never actually have sessions together with me (since most of our lessons are one-on-one). A non-digital pro: it’s a great way to keep a log of all you’ve read. I can see students enjoying seeing their lists of “read” books grow!

We have a group called “Liz’s Tutoring Students.” I need to come up with a better name. From what I can tell, students can have book discussions and add books to the group list from our group page. They can also do this maintenance on their home pages, and I’m not sure how the two overlap. I’m also not sure if there’s a way for me to keep track of “minutes read” or “pages read”… still trying to figure that one out. Would love to hear stories about awesome ways you’ve used Goodreads, or any advice or warnings you have if this is something you’ve done with students before. Or, if you know of other wonderful sites to support students’ independent reading, send them along!