Monday, March 30, 2015

Teacher in a Strange Land

In “Teaching the Digital Native: Learning With Computers and the Internet Poses New Challenges,” Fawn Johnson, reporter for, writes about the changing landscape in the education industry, and the need for schools, teachers, and infrastructure to evolve with the times. Although she attempts to write from a pro-education standpoint, her premise is clear: the computer programs are good, and the way teachers have been teaching and schools have been running is bad.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

The picture above, included with the article, is captioned: “Digital classrooms are the wave of the future.” Notice the very homogenous classroom with their matching brown shirts. Is this how our students look? Is this the student body of the future? Who is the audience for this article, if their vision of the classroom is white kids in matching T-shirts? 

 It is important to note that National Journal, according to Wikipedia, receives “substantial financial support from the Gates Foundation ($240,000+) to provide coverage of education-related issues that are of interest to the Gates Foundation.” That may help to explain Johnson’s stance, and even her audience. She is not talking to educators or parents; she is preaching to the corporate company choir.

Johnson cites two recent “experiments” in which a school district implemented new technology. The first experiment, one she labels a success, was Kramer Middle School in Washington D.C. The principal, Kwame Simmons, installed state-of-the-art infrastructure into his newly remodeled building, instituted blended learning (half of the students’ time is spent on laptops, and the other half is teacher-led), and replaced “most of the teaching staff so he could hire technically savvy faculty.”

The second experiment, nationally deemed a failure, was the Los Angeles school district’s disastrous $1Billion iPad purchase without the necessary “comprehensive implementation plan.” According to Johnson, “schools paid full price for online curriculum that wasn't finished, students complained that they couldn't read on the iPad screen, while others figured out how to bypass the Internet controls and surf the Web for anything. The school district suspended the program."

Looking at the Kramer Middle School experiment, a school that “replaced” (a very pretty way to describe a systematically firing of the staff and a hiring of a brand new staff) most of their staff to hire “tech savvy faculty” (note that she didn’t say teachers), it is easy to take her word on this success story. And yet, Johnson doesn’t link to any articles throughout the Kramer paragraphs, although she links to articles everywhere else. In my own research, I have found that, although Simmons’ picture and profile are listed on the Kramer Middle School website, Delia Davis-Dykes is listed as interim principal at the District of Columbia Public Schools’ website. The Kramer Middle School Facebook page has not been updated since 2011; KMS is rated 2/10 on, 12th out of 13 ranked schools on, and is a Priority school based on 2013-2014 data. It is extremely odd that Johnson, in her article published September 15, 2014 deems Kramer Middle School as a success and Simmons as a visionary.

Putting aside the questionable journalism of this article, it does speak to the bizarre time we, as teachers, are currently in. The “digital native” language in and of itself is troublesome, as it is imbedded with so much emotional and social weight (and is no longer politically correct). But the concept that the teachers in the “successful” district had to be replaced in order to present this technology-rich success story is also disconcerting.  According to Johnson, “Only 8 percent of teachers say they feel proficient with technology, according to White House data,” although she does not link to this study or cite a source for this statistic.

Johnson fawns about a forum held by The Atlantic in 2014 that “featured some of the most prominent innovators in education technology, the people who design individualized learning platforms and free online courses and ways to take and share notes on online content. It's wonderful stuff as long as there are people and resources to make it work like it's supposed to,” she concludes. You will notice that she talks about “it” working. And the people and resources that need to be there in order for “it” to work. What is “it”? Well, I can tell you what it is not. It is not nurturing. It is not student-centric. It is not building relationships with students. It is not making personal connections with students’ lives and helping them see how to not only survive in this world, but to thrive, and maybe even to make it better. It is not a human connection. It is a computer program, built with algorithms, sold to districts, who then need to replace their content-expert and student-expert teachers with technology experts.

The statistic that “only 8 percent of teachers say they feel proficient with technology” tells us something very truthful about teachers, but it’s not what Johnson thinks. Her premise is that, if teachers say they aren’t proficient, then they must not be; therefore, they should be replaced with faculty who are proficient in technology. Whether or not this statistic is real (and there is no evidence in this article that the statistic IS real), teachers do say they don’t feel proficient. Why? Because teachers believe that they have to be experts in their field. In order to be an English teacher, I have to be an expert in English language and literature. Teachers are highly trained and highly proficient in their content area, and their content area is not technology, unless they happen to be a technology teacher.

But do teachers have to be experts in technology in order to remain relevant in teaching? In “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher” Michael Godsey, longtime English educator, mourns that teachers won’t be relevant for much longer. He voices his fears that teachers are no longer allowed to be the experts in their subject area; instead, teachers have to be “expert facilitators.” They have to be able to manage multi-modal and blended-learning educational programming: in essence, pre-packed, canned curriculum. They are no longer teaching, but rather “facilitating,” while the computer programs do the teaching.

This goes against everything teachers have been trained to do...and against the driving philosophies that teachers idealistically believe in, when they go into education. They want to work with kids: to inspire, to challenge, to help, to teach. They don’t go into teaching to manage computer programs and hardware. Teachers do not deem themselves “proficient in technology” because, to be proficient, in educational terms, is to be at mastery. By very definition in the classroom,  a proficient teacher is a very good one. And we are charged to raise all of our students to proficiency in our content area. That means that all of our students are “at mastery” of the content. And teachers do not feel like they are “at mastery” in technology.

What teachers are proficient in, is teaching the individual human students in their classroom, with all of the baggage and hopes and struggles and dreams that students bring. And this is something that no computer algorithm can do, no matter how many “success stories” are written by the corporate mouthpieces.

"...she's all the unsung heroes who couldn't make it but never quit." 


“Auguste Rodin, ‘The Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone’ c.1880–1, cast 1950.” Tate, n.d. Online. Internet. 30 Mar. 2015. . Available:

Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. Penguin, 1987.

Monday, March 9, 2015

How do you solve a problem like Wikipedia?

She is gentle! She is wild!
She's a riddle! She's a child!
She's a headache! She's an angel!

She's a girl! (1)

Actually, Wikipedia is not a girl. A 2011 survey by Wikimedia (cited by Laura Goldstein in her article, "Mass Wikipedia Edit To Make The Internet Less Sexist") found that “less than 8.5% of Wikipedia contributors were female.” Wikipedia, in fact, has a girl problem. 

She’s a headache. 

Specifically, Wikipedia has a problem with the shockingly low numbers of female editors, female entries, and the classification of women in the arts. Amanda Filipiacchi, in a 2013 op-ed for The New York Times, uncovered an ongoing classification problem whereby women authors were systematically being moved from the “American Novelists” page to the “American Female Novelists” page. As Filipiacchi points out, this practice of creating a sub-category will lessen the chances of those moved to the American Female Novelist page of showing up in a general search. This subjugates not only the information about these authors but the authors themselves.

She’s a riddle. Or is she an angel?

Often maligned and discredited by teachers across the United States as being “unreliable,” Wikipedia is also revered by those who understand that open-sourcing provides a huge base of information that is constantly being edited in real time, allowing for the most accurate and timely publication. And yet, even Wikipedia doesn’t want to be known as “open-source.” A decade ago, Daniel Terdiman wrote "Wikipedia’s Open Source Label Conundrum" for, and the confusion still stands. Is Wikipedia a free-for-all? Or is it highly reputable? Does the allowance for anonymity of authorship and edits create a meritocracy? Or does it allow for trolling and for edits of a disreputable nature and intention?

She is wild.

After Filipiacchi wrote her piece in 2013, there were numerous edits to her Wikipedia page, sabotaging her information. Although most of the edits were done by one person or a small group of people, their anonymity protected them from any backlash. In essence, Filipiacchi was bullied for simply noticing and writing about the sub-categorization of female authors. The Wikimedia Foundation takes no ownership or control of content. According to Martha Nichols and Lorraine Berry, in their article, "What Should We Do About Wikipedia," "The Foundation estimates that there are about 80,000 active editors (those who make at least five edits a week) for all the Wikipedias around the world...With the exception of removing a very small number of articles or posts that might violate copyright or potentially harm someone, [the Foundation does] not remove or alter content. That’s all in the hands of [the] volunteers.” In essence, there is very little oversight. The system relies on the common good of the group to edit for good, not evil. And some would argue that the edit history would allow users to discriminate between good and bad information; but this is assuming that the average user would be savvy enough to check the history and understand its implications. Part of the issue IS the average user: one who would never search sub-categories for information and therefore would miss out on all of the content that has been sub-categorized.

She’s a child.

Nichols and Berry point out that this issue is just the tip of the iceberg. The authorship of Wikipedia skews just as heavily to certain demographics as it is heavily male. Pages written about minority subjects are often sub-categorized, institutionalizing the social and political imbalances present in our society into Wikipedia’s entries. Wikipedia’s foundational beliefs supporting free authorship are idealistic and simplistic in a world governed by race, money, gender, and class. It’s immature to believe that the system will govern itself, if the dominant voices in the system are of the dominant group.

She is gentle...

One response to this issue of the sub-categorization of women on Wikipedia, and of the glaringly low female authorship of Wikipedia pages is the The Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon,sponsored by MoMA and held on International Women’s Day. According to Jennifer Schuessler, writing for The New York Times’ Arts Beat,“Last year’s event, which drew participants in six countries, resulted in more 100 new articles on female artists, feminist artistic movements and feminist scholarship and improvements to more than 90 articles.” This year, the event has the same hopes and is held across the globe at more than 70 sites worldwide. Although this event is not a traffic-stopping march, it is an educated and calculated attempt to meet Wikipedia on its terms and strive to make it better.

So, how do we solve a problem like Wikipedia?

Events like the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon are one solution. If those groups disenfranchised by Wikipedia add their voices and their pages and move their subjects into primary categories, their subjugation by sub-categorization will subside. It is time for all voices to be represented by Wikipedia; the only way for that to occur is if those very voices demand to be heard.

Goldstein states, “In the 21st century, when women have unprecedented freedoms, they are still marginalized, not just in the art world, but also on the digital plane, often relegated to a footnote or brief citation. While we’re still a distance from common-sense realities like equal pay for women, comprehensive childcare, and a reproductive rights bill, at least the digital world will be a slightly more female-friendly place after this weekend.”

Wikipedia needs not only to be a girl; it needs to be a boy and everything in between; it needs to be all genders and without gender; it needs to be all races, and yet blind to race. It needs to be the egalitarian database that its very premise sets it out to be.
          (1) Rodgers, Richard, and Oscar Hammerstein II. "Maria." The Sound of Music. 1959. 

“Wikipedia:Wikipedia logos.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, 4 Feb. 2015. Online. Internet. 30 Mar. 2015. . Available:
Zywalewski, Dariusz. “The first Wikipedia Monument in the world • Collegium Polonicum.” Text, n.d. Online. Internet. 30 Mar. 2015. . Available: