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“Derrick’s Story”

The other night I had dinner with a couple I’ve known for a long time. Let’s just say that one of these people is not named “Derrick,” but that’s the name I will use. It will be easy to understand why as I tell this story. The facts are correct, but I will not identify him nor identify the school so that I don’t put Derrick in a bad spot.

By David Greene

Derrick is a retired high school teacher who was recently hired as a substitute in an upper-middle class suburban high school whose population is 80 percent white with less than ten percent of students considered to be economically disadvantaged. Approximately 70 percent of students take AP courses. Almost all meet ELA and math proficiency standards.

It is a town similar to several NYC suburban towns. The estimated median household income was about $90,000, which is $30,000 higher than the New York state median. More than half of the town’s population has at least a bachelor’s degree, while more than a quarter has a graduate or professional degree.

In short, this is not your average high school in your average suburban town.

Derrick started by saying he has been learning a great deal of new technology while on this job. Great, I thought, but then he went on.

His story soon morphed into a version of “The Walking Dead” or a parallel of the story of Clarisse McClellan, an unorthodox teacher, in the film and stage version of “Fahrenheit 451” — fired for not believing in Ray Bradbury’s fictional, high tech, book-burning, future society she lives in.

Derrick began to describe how he had to learn the Smart Board, specific tablet apps, Infinite Campus, and Pearson-created, computer-directed curricula for his courses. He was forced to implement a rigid, computer-directed classroom where all students worked in groups, listened to a Kahn Academy-like lecture, followed computer-programmed procedures outlined on the Smart Board, and did assignments on their tablets. Lesson plans were only to be followed, not created, and rigidly broke the period down into timed sections.

Derrick was told not to use the Socratic Method or any kind of class participation where he did anything more than monitor student progress on their work. He became a glorified babysitter. A cog in a machine. An automaton.

A technician, rather than a teacher.

Coincidentally, the next morning I read a New York Times piece related to this issue. Entitled, Lecture Me. Really., it told the tale of a college American history prof who inspected her new classroom and was pleased to see all the new technology there, but was surprised that there was no lectern for her to place her notes. She managed to get one after weeks of telephoning and emailing.

Although she defended lecturing in her piece, of which I am not a fan, the tale is still important to this discussion.

The point is that even if this room was used for a student-centered Socratic classroom, the emphasis was solely on the non-human technology. We need to combine active learning (which can easily be done via low or high tech tools) and the kinds of teaching tools that allow students to “keep students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action and… a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the “critical thinking” that educational theorists prize.

To quote the author, Molly Worthen, “Technology can be a saboteur. Studies suggest that taking notes by hand helps students master material better than typing notes on a laptop, probably because most find it impossible to take verbatim notes with pen and paper. Verbatim transcription is never the goal: Students should synthesize as they listen.”

Derrick’s story, on its own, is scary indeed, but we also know that this is happening all across the country where school districts, even relatively wealthy ones such as his, are buying into the high tech trend regardless of what it does to the quality of teaching and learning.

All districts want to upgrade their technology, so when giants like Pearson, Apple, or Microsoft tell them they will install everything and provide all students with tablets, many jump at the chance to sell their souls to “the devil.” The “devil” corporations or foundations give districts the hardware and software, but they are locked in to using their curricula and lesson plans.

The result? Instead of technology creating great teaching tools for teachers, teachers become the tools of technology!

The opinions expressed here are solely those of David Greene.








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  • If the current generation of children grow up in this “Scary New World” that is emerging, not by the consent of the people of a Republic and/or Democracy but by a small number of obviously psychopathic billionaire oligarchs and their HUGE autocratic corporations than that generation of children born into that authoritarian world order will grow up and this will be their life — to them, everything is relative based on the world they grow up in. Their world will be Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Orwell’s 1984.

    History has revealed to us that artists, musicians and authors often predict the future with their art, song and literature before that future arrives. In the last century, a lot of that art and literature has been dystopian: Brave New World, Divergent, The Giver, The Hunger Games, etc.

    We have been warned. If we don’t stop these psychopathic billionaire oligarchs—for instance, Bill Gates, the Waltons, Eli Broad, the Koch Brothers, etc. — that future is insured for the children of our children.

    And as unbelievable as this may sound, the only country that might survive this future is China, because I watch China carefully and regardless of the censorship in China and what we hear in the Western media, that country has been moving in the opposite direction from the West. Instead of moving toward a more authoritarian future, China has been moving away from their authoritarian past because of the horrible suffering and losses that happened during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Too many Chinese are still alive who lived through that horror and they don’t want that world for their children and grandchildren.

    October 22, 2015
  • the words of the little boy in Amy Berard’s Massachusetts classroom still ring in my head:
    “Be a person, Miss!”

    October 22, 2015

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