Sunday, November 6, 2011

Opening Comments by Andy Flaherty - Digital Media Roundtable sponsored by the Hechinger Institute Chicago, November 5, 2011 – Hard Rock Hotel

It was an honor to be asked to speak at this conference; to say I was “woefully inadequate” describes, perfectly, the way I felt. Following the brilliant librarian who replaced library books with E-Readers and the brilliant headmaster from Connecticut who said he is not willing to settle for “priveledged mediocrity,” I felt small, like I had gotten the assignment wrong. However, after a few moments I realized that this is what I have been called to do many, many times before and my resolve strengthened. To speak for the underrepresented is what I do best, because it is woven into the fabric of my social justice sensibility. So I took off my jacket, pulled up a stool, and talked – without the hyped bridled language of pedagogy- to the journalists (from the AP, Dallas Morning News, etc.) who had gathered. Following the script I had prepared below, I told the tale of the gap in this country that must be filled. Ironically, the brilliant headmaster and I were like kindred spirits – the private and the public must help each other we concluded. The Hechinger Institute deserves credit for bringing in the unvoiced and giving public educators the chance to tell our story.

My Comments:

I am literally and figuratively last. Reluctant for years, as it relates to digital media, I finally came to the technology table with my first cell phone in late 2002 and my first laptop in 2003.

I am a second career teacher. After ten years in marketing and advertising, I became an English teacher to teach writing – big sheets of butcher paper, writer’s notebooks replete with doodles and “found lines” collected for poems. In the past fourteen years, working as an urban educator in schools with 99% free hot lunch programs and then training teachers both in Canada and the United States, I have been repeatedly exposed to the “haves” and “have nots.” To be frank, this realm of digital media defies categorization but I will try.

I understand that the digital media age is here. I understand that our children use it better than some of us do. I understand so well that I now have a Mac; I phone 4, and two digital cameras. However, I am here because I sit in the computer lab now with a cacophony of student voices and a kaleidoscope of images: “I can’t log on Mr. F. how do I format the margin again?,” “My document disappeared – I forgot my flash drive so what should I do?,” and the quiet students who have head phones in their ears but no sound coming out. I understand that my Bronzeville Speaks publication and the Bronzeville Speaks blog are wonderful products of digital media that took hours and hours of after school and weekend time to create. However, I am here because I am worried that digital media in our classrooms will not be used as a means to develop thinkers, but because of myriad problems, will merely promote users and passive recipients of this technology. I want to make sure teachers have what they need to develop creators: using technology, applying critical thinking skills to develop creative solutions. Just as with reading we need to help make sure our students are not passively receiving information but are actually producing literate work.

But let me make a few comments about what I mean by “haves nots.” In schools like mine where there may be as few as 30 to 60 working computers for 500 to 1,600 students, the issue is complex. There seems to be a triumvirate of problems: money, time, and resources; it is a circular conspiracy of competing problems. For example we no longer have the traditional business classes, so who are our resources for understanding/teaching the digital media? The computers many of us have come from a grant written by our librarians, and the little digital media we do use is our own, brought from home. When we are lucky enough to get a grant, we must learn the technology on our own and on our own time. When it breaks down, we struggle to get it fixed. In the meantime copies don’t get made, letters of reference don’t get printed, and the work piles up. Not to mention the questions of where and by whom it will get fixed. In a 48 minute period constrained by district mandates, teaching ourselves and other teachers (usually English teachers or Librarians) who have no expertise with technology, forces us to make the decision of content over technology. So money is the obvious problem and probably always has been. But the larger issue is how do we look at all three issues in a balanced, solutions-oriented way to avoid the pitfalls we faced when computers were first introduced. The “have nots” are really those of us with not three but one or two of these issues in play: no time, no resources, or no money to use the digital media world has created.

Digital media is here and changing our world. It seems to me that all our schools, public and private, must make a sincere, disciplined, and planned effort to make it part of our classrooms since we are producing the next generation of citizens for the world. The questions remain: How do we move it from an extra-curricular effort to a mainstreamed classroom addition? How do we integrate people and machines

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