A Glimpse into the Future

I did the simplest thing in class yesterday. It was genius – by which I mean that I had just experienced one of those “A-ha!” moments, when, for a moment, I saw with great clarity exactly how a tech tool could enhance my teaching…with ease!

I wanted to introduce our next novel study to the class: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. We read this novel primarily to explore its themes and what the author wants to teach us through those themes about the state of our society. As both a Grade 8 English and Social Studies teacher, I wanted to make a connection to our current study of Ancient Greece. Socrates was the obvious dot to which I wanted to connect Bradbury because Socrates advocated critical self-reflection and the rigorous questioning of taken-for-granted assumptions. Two of his most famous quotes indicate the goals of his philosophic introspection: “Know thyself” and “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

As serendipitous as it was that I was concurrently introducing Socrates and Bradbury, I did not want to take up a lot of class time with this point. So, how could I make the connection brief, yet engage students in the exercise (rather than just standing up front and telling them point blank, and then having many of them miss it or instantly forget it).

At this juncture, my mind alighted upon one of Tom Daccord‘s little gems, as shared with Social Studies teachers at a recent middle/high school workshop. Fusing this with the “million dollar job” activity from Jeff Utecht’s August 28 Course 1 intro day, I had the makings of a cool little exercise.

First, I told students to use the window of class time they had once they were finished and had submitted their Ancient Greece section quiz, to find out more about Socrates. I encouraged them to go to any online reference tool they liked to use to do a 5 minute skim-read with the purpose of identifying Socrates’ main philosophy. Then students were to summarize his main teaching point in a single sentence – it could be a quote from the reference site, or one of Socrates’ own, or a sentence composed by the student. While they were at this, I took the next step:

By filling in the blue form boxes at TodaysMeet - a matter of a few seconds – I had created almost instantly a simple space on the web for a synchronous conversation at www.todaysmeet.com/socrates. I projected the webpage with this simple URL, and students joined me, also in a matter of moments.

I told students to cut and paste their sentence into this chat. Once individuals had finished this step, I told them to watch as more sentences were added, and review those already submitted, with the goal of looking for trends – what ideas came up most? In this way, every student was engaged with the task, and every student reported to the class. And it all took at most 10 minutes.

Finally, I scrolled through the transcript of the chat and elicited from students the words and phrases they could see were repeated most often. The rationale was that any one individual might have misunderstood what she/he had read or been simply a bit off the mark in describing Socrates’ critical ideas, but that probably overall the classroom crowd would have correctly identified the key ideas, so we could boil down the chat input to those basically cross-referenced points.

Sure enough, key words like “question” were repeated, and one or both of the quotes I had hoped they would stumble across, stood out from the list of sentences. In a matter of collaborative moments, I believe the students had gained a clearer picture of what Socrates stood for through a process of social meaning-making enabled by a Web 2.0 tool. And, also, by me. Connectivism on multiple levels.

With the connection iterated, and an essential understanding for the novel study deeply etched along my students’ neural pathways, now they could all turn their attention to reading and self-reflection with Bradbury. It had all been so very simple, student-centered, self-differentiating, publicly accountable, high interest, and easily replicable.

Erik J and Chris F will be sharing details in their blogs about the joint Course 1 Project that we undertook to enhance our Grade 8 English curriculum with a GoogleSite-based discussion and file-sharing, with a VoiceThread activity thrown in. Putting this project together took quite some consultation but we are satisfied that the tech tools we’ve added will certainly enhance our Literature Circle discussions of Fahrenheit 451. I’m sure our efforts will reap rewards for the students in terms of personalizing and internalizing the author’s thematic lessons through collaboration.

But my favorite result of this process so far was that light-bulb moment for me in the classroom, when I saw that it doesn’t all have to be blood, sweat and tears. Technology tools offer instant gratification for old digital immigrants like me too!

Technology & Twisted Fiction: Does Bradbury’s twisted future have anything left to teach us?

I’m looking forward to helping Ray Bradbury exercise his dystopic demons again this year. I have been studying his Fahrenheit 451 with my students for the past six years and invariably he leaves them worrying and wondering, at least a little, about the state of our society.

This is the unit of work that our group of three Grade 8 English/Social Studies teachers has identified for enriching with technology to meet our Course 1 goals, and our teaching goals too, of course.

It amazes me, actually, that students engage at all with Bradbury’s metaphor-manic prose. As I explain to the students, whose eyes have just about rolled to the back of their heads by the end of page 2, this novel is really the author’s soapbox stand. It’s an urgent message he wants to get out to all of us about censorship and conformity, about misguided attempts to find happiness, about loss of humanity, about being entertained into mental oblivion … And about the impact of technology on society. He could have gone into politics, or the music industry, or taken to graffitiing important monuments with his message. But instead he wrote a book. I am pretty blunt – I don’t promise a compelling plot or rich characterization (after all, they have just been indulged with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men). I tell them they will have to read Fahrenheit 451 as detectives. They need to wade through the clues of Bradbury’s literary puzzle, and take in the sprinkling of storyline on the side, to unearth the rich themes which are strikingly relevant today for a book that was written in the early 1950s about a future imagined in the 24th century.

For much of the story we see technology perverted to the whims of a faceless, nameless all-powerful government/media monopoly that seeks to maintain control through a devious mix of censorship and entertainment. These “authorities” have taken advantage of the citizens’ increasing laziness about wanting to know what’s going in the world, about wanting to truly learn about life, warts and all. Instead, people are increasingly satisfied to be passive, unquestioning recipients of a wave of empty factoids that are steadily beamed at them through interactive big-screen TVs that have substituted for walls in people’s homes, and also through the radio earbuds (iPod precursors?!) which they wear constantly, plugging up their ears to the point that citizens have learned to lip-read so as to avoid the necessity of dividing their attention between the gripping infotainment streamed directly to their ears and the people they live and work amongst (but with which they don’t really engage). Not only has technology enabled mental laziness, it also facilitates physical laziness by taking over basic daily functions, such as passing the breakfast toast from toaster to plate. It also comes into play when it’s time to pick up the pieces of the citizens’ sad, empty lives. Drug overdoses are so frequent, that doctors no longer attend this kind of emergency; instead, a machine has been invented to do the stomach-pumping and blood transfusions, and it requires only a machine operator to plug it in and turn it on. Citizens are both willingly and unwittingly giving up their autonomy to technology.

Bradbury’s futuristic society seems to be a sad and sorry mix of George Orwell’s 1984, in which the citizens are oppressed by their government, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which citizens are oppressed through their addiction to amusement. It is all very oppressive!

Fortunately, the last stages of the book reveal an alternative future. One rebel has developed a two-way radio earbud so he can stay in contact with his new friend, the protagonist, and so together they can fight the forces of evil. And finally, at the end of the novel, our hero meets a group of outcasts who seem to have technology firmly in hand – quite literally, in the case of the televisions, which have been downsized into hand-held devices, handy for news updates but also easy to put down and walk away from.

This leads me to wonder how easy it is for us to walk away from technology these days. It is a question I put to our students and we have, for a number of years now, conducted our own social experiment with a voluntary technology fast – or, rather, e-media fast.

Every now and then, I read of other teachers and students pondering the same question. Just this month a high school in Portland, Oregon, attempted their own “fast” to prompt the same kind of self-reflection: “Students at Portland’s Lincoln High School unplug, experience life without technology”. Ironically, by switching off, kids are prompted to switch on their consciousness: “You don’t have to go live in the woods, but you have to be conscious about how you use these electronics,” one student reported in the article. “When people are educated about what they’re doing, that’s when they can make a personal decision to change.”

My own students have recounted widely varying personal responses. (We have tried to do it over a holiday period, because some level of laptop use would be required on a typical school day.) Some highly active kids just get on with their physical activity – no big deal. Highly social kids organize get-togethers in real time and space, instead of cyberspace – they plan sleepovers, bake cookies, and hang out together. For some, it takes organization and effort to stave off the boredom and disconnection they feel without technology. For others, it is surprisingly tough and they quit early. A small group invariably reports that they know they couldn’t get on with life without technology, and so what? They don’t have to contemplate a life without technology, anyway, so what’s the point? They are self-confessed addicts, but the addiction seems pretty harmless. Or is it?